And Now for Something Completely Different: Rotation Heat Pump!

Heat pumps for space heating are all very similar: Refrigerant evaporates, pressure is increased by a scroll compressor, refrigerant condenses, pressure is reduced in an expansion value. *yawn*

The question is:

Can a compression heat pump be built in a completely different way?

Austrian start-up ECOP did it: They  invented the so-called Rotation Heat Pump.

It does not have a classical compressor, and the ‘refrigerant’ does not undergo a phase transition. A pressure gradient is created by centrifugal forces: The whole system rotates, including the high-pressure (heat sink) and low-pressure (source) heat exchanger. The low pressure part of the system is positioned closer to the center of the rotation axis, and heat sink and heat source are connected at the axis (using heating water). The system rotates at up to 1800 rounds per minute.

A mixture of noble gases is used in a Joule (Brayton) process, driven in a cycle by a ventilator. Gas is compressed and thus heated up; then it is cooled at constant pressure and energy is released to the heat sink. After expanding the gas, it is heated up again at low pressure by the heat source.

In the textbook Joule cycle, a turbine and a compressor share a common axis: The energy released by the turbine is used to drive the compressor. This is essential, as compression and expansion energies are of the same order of magnitude, and both are considerably larger than the net energy difference – the actual input energy.

In contrast to that, a classical compression heat pump uses a refrigerant that is condensed while releasing heat and then evaporated again at low pressure. There is no mini-turbine to reduce the pressure but only an expansion valve, as there is not much energy to gain.

This explains why the Rotation Heat Pumps absolutely have to have compression efficiencies of nearly 100%, compared to, say, 85% efficiency of a scroll compressor in heat pump used for space heating:

Some numbers for a Joule process (from this German ECOP paper): On expansion of the gas 1200kW are gained, but 1300kW are needed for compression – if there would be no losses at all. So the net input power is 100kW. But if the efficiency of the compression is reduced from 100% to 80% about 1600kW are needed and thus a net input power of 500kW – five times the power compared to the ideal compressor! The coefficient of performance would plummet from 10 to 2,3.

I believe these challenging requirements are why Rotation Heat Pumps are ‘large’ and built for industrial processes. In addition to the high COP, this heat pump is also very versatile: Since there are no phase transitions, you can pick your favorite corner of the thermodynamic state diagram at will: This heat pump works for very different combinations temperatures of the hot target and the cold source.

Peter von Rittinger’s Steam Pump (AKA: The First Heat Pump)

Peter von Rittinger’s biography reads like a success story created by a Victorian novelist, and his invention was a text-book example of innovation triggered by scarcity ( Bio DE / EN).

Born 1811, he was poor and became an orphan early. Yet he was able to study mathematics and physics as his secondary education had been financed by the Piarist Order. He also studied law and mining. Immediately after having graduated he was appointed as inspector in an iron ore processing plant (stamping mill), and later called a pioneer in that field and accountable for several inventions.

1850 Rittinger became ‘Sectionsrat’ (head of a division) in the Ministry of Agriculture and Mining in Vienna. He was knighted in 1863, so quoting all his titles as a public servant in the higher echelons of the Austro-Hungarian empire he was:
k. k. Sectionsrath Oberbergrath Ritter von Rittinger.

Peter von RittingerYet it seems even as an administrator he was still a hands-on tinkerer. He developed a process for harvesting salt from brine at Saline Ebensee in Upper Austria – saving 80% of input energy compared to processes used at this time. In the mid of the 19th century saltworks in Austria had been dependent on fuel: on wood available locally. Railway tracks have not been built yet, and fossil fuels had not yet been available. The ecological footprint had to be much closer to the physical area than today.

In History of Heatpumps, Martin Zogg writes:

One of the main applications [of mechanical vapor compression] is the salt production from salt brine. In order to get 1 kg of salt there have to be evaporated about 3 kg of water, which illustrates the enormous energy demand of such processes. Whole forests had been cleared for this purpose.
Peter von Rittinger … was the first to try the realisation of this idea on a pilot scale. …. He designed and installed the first known pilot heat pump for heating only with a capacity of 14  kW, … The start-up of Rittinger’s “steam pump” was in 1857.

This is the title page of Rittinger’s publication of 1855:

Rittinger, Abdampfverfahren, 1855. Title page.Translating about to:

Theoretical-practical treatise
on a novel evaporation process
applicable to all varieties of liquids
using one and the same amount of heat
which – for this purpose –
is set into perpetual circular motion by water power.
Taking into account the salt boiling process specifically.

I have created this simplified figure from the description in his paper:

Rittinger, Steam Pump, called the first heat pump.

Simplified sketch showing the principles of Peter von Rittinger’s steam pump as described in his original paper. The vessel had to be opened to remove the salt which had precipitated in the upper part of the vessel (called a brine ‘pan’ in German) and water accumulated in the lower part (‘double bottom’).

Salt brine is feed into the upper part of a vessel can be closed an has two parts: The colder, upper part contains brine mixed with water vapor at low temperature and low pressure; the lower part is separated from this cavity by a metal slab with high thermal conductivity. The colder vapor is compressed; and the compressor is driven by a water wheel. To start the process, all cavities are filled with vapor heated to 100°C at the beginning.

At a higher pressure, the evaporation / condensation temperature is higher. Thus hot, dense vapor condenses on the top of the lower cavity, releasing heat which is available in the upper cavity to heat the colder ‘input vapor’. This makes salt precipitate in the upper chamber where it was collected regularly.

In a heat pump for room heating a refrigerant running in a closed cycle is compressed by a mechanical compressor powered by electrical energy. At low temperatures and low pressures the refrigerant evaporates easily, even when in contact with a cold heat source (such as our water / ice tank at 0°C in winter). After compression, vapor condenses at temperatures higher than room temperature and thus the refrigerant is able to release the heat ‘harvested’ before. Rittinger’s steam pump is called The First Heat Pump by historians: However, in this device the water vapor mixed with salt brine is both the ‘refrigerant’ and the liquid to be heated.

In his paper, Rittinger explained that you could as well start from a brine at a temperature as low as 10°C, not needing any auxiliary heating. The system would operate at lower temperatures and pressures. But due to the lower pressures the same material would occupy a larger volume and thus the system had to be much bigger. I suppose, taking into account investment costs, this would have been less economical than using a bit of fuel to get the process going.

What I found intriguing about Rittinger’s work – and perhaps about the way research publications were written back then – was the combination of hands-on engineering, theoretical modeling, and honest and ‘narrative’ reporting of difficulties. Zogg’s history of heat pump quotes quite a number of Leonardo-da-Vinci-style inventors with diverse interests and an obviously ‘holistic’ approach.

Martin Zogg notes that using today’s technology, such ‘steam pumps’ easily obtain a coefficient of performance of 15 – more than 3 times the COP of a heat pump used for room heating. Mechanical vapor compression is state-of-the art technology in salt processing. The reason for the high COP is the lower temperature difference between hot and cool brine vapor. You just need to provide for a sufficient temperature gradient to allow for heat transport from the hot to the cooler cavity, and to overcome the change in evaporation temperature (according to Raoult’s Law).

I could not find the figures in the original paper that Rittinger referred to. The following image is a link to a clickable, larger version of the figures Rittinger had added to a later paper dated 1857, on the actual results of his experiments:

Figures attached to Rittinger's paper of 1857, steam pump experiments(Provided by the digitized archive of Polytechnisches Journal, by University of Berlin, under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 3.0)

What looks like a top view of spaceship Enterprise is the vessel seen from the top. On the left, the corresponding side view shows that it was rather tall. What had been described as a simple separating wall-style flat heat exchanger was actually built as a system of several cylindrical cavities (to increase the heat exchanger’s surface). In the figure the cavities containing high-pressure vapor are denoted with b/c/d. The steam pump / compressor is denoted with E, Dampf-Pumpe, and shown to the right of the vessel in the side view.

Though the numbers were in line with his theoretical calculations, Rittinger’s pilot system did not work well: This was an unreliable batch process, as the vessel was opened regularly to remove the precipitated salt. Rittinger made some suggestions in his original paper, on how to harvest salt continuously. From experience he knew that salt crystals should easily glide downwards from a tilted plane. But among other issues, Rittinger noted in his research report from 1857 that salt crystals behaved quite differently in his vessel, and he attributed it to the higher temperatures in the closed vessel: Instead of being able to harvest the loose crystal at the tip of the conical vessel, all vertical planes have been covered with a crust of salt that resisted also the strongest chisel.

His epigones finally solved such issues – quoting Zogg again:

Probably stimulated by the experiments of Rittinger at Ebensee, the first truly functioning vapour recompression salt plant was developed in Switzerland by Antoine-Paul Piccard the University of Lausanne and the engineer J.H. Weibel of the company Weibel-Briquet of  Geneva in 1876. In 1877, this first heat pump in Switzerland was installed at the salt works at Bex. It was on a larger scale than Rittinger’s apparatus and produced around 175 kg/h of salt in continuous operation.

“Being Creative with What Is Available”

This is a quote from Simon Dale’s website who has built several eco-friendly ‘Hobbit’ houses. It reminded me of the cave house built into lava bubbles by Lanzarote’s most famous artist César Manrique:

Lava bubble room, César Manrique foundation.

This is very a truly 1970s living room – a ‘The Flintstones’ experience on many levels. (Image: mine)

Being creative with what is available has an appeal beyond economical necessities.

As a teenage hobby astronomer I built a mounting for my small telescope from pieces of wood and metal I found at home. It allowed for rotation about two axes. (I don’t have an image which is probably good.)

As a scientist at the university your labor is cheap but professional equipment is much too expensive. So you have to tinker. My experimental apparatus included a toy motor moving an optical lens, and a water-cooled projector’s bulb was the radiative heater mounted inside my vacuum chamber.

We investigated the growth of superconducting thin films deposited from a vapor ‘plume’ caused by shooting very short UV laser pulses onto a ceramic sample. There was no fancy high-speed device: We took photos of that plume using a normal camera and called it Time-Integrated Photography in scholarly lingo. We found some interesting scaling laws though.

PLD Plume

I am too lazy to scan an old photo of our own plasma plumes. But Wikimedia has it all – this looks exactly as ours did! Oh, the paper authored by The Chief Engineer and myself is worthy $40 today. (Image by Wikimedia user: H. Perowne).

Maybe the desire to build something from anything and to use whatever tool is at hand is the true connection between my diverse activities.

Most IT infrastructures are historically grown and you hardly ever find that green field people would like to install their solutions in. If you don’t like bottom-up tinkering it is just a source of endless frustration. Otherwise it is a noble Apollo-13-like challenge.

The same goes for tinkering with an old house. In the moment we are puzzling about an underground tank powered heat pump system for a house that will be built on top of a high-rise bunker.

Bochum - Baarestraße - Bunker 01 ies

A typical German high-rise bunker, in this case somewhat prettified. Normally they are just bleak grey boxes. (by Wikimedia user Frank Vincentz)

This is not uncommon in some German cities  where unused building land is scarce and thus expensive. Here is an example of a musician’s studio built on top of a bunker in Frankfurt:

… a World War II bunker in Frankfurt that had been previously disguised as a house because it was too expensive to demolish. In a crappy part of town, “a no man’s land between heaps of gravel and dumps, piled-up recycling-products and containers that await their shipping”, the architects decided to rise above it all …

I believe in true innovation driven by necessities and constraints (only). Nassim Taleb’s derision of Soviet-Harvard-style planned ‘research’ struck a chord with me. He challenged the alleged causation usually invoked by politicians and people working in taxpayer-funded committees that ‘steer’ and ‘manage’ innovation at three meta-levels above the ground of honest hands-on work: It is plausible that bottom-up tinkerers trigger innovation which in turn allows countries for building prestigious universities and think-tanks; not the other way around.

Having finished my PhD I saw a report on TV about a mechanic – a craftsman without a degree who was introduced as an inventor. I forgot what the invention actually was but I do remember his apparatus very much reminded me of the vacuum chamber I had worked with – when doing Time-Integrated Photography. I figured: Wow, he calls ‘tinkering’ what we would have written academic papers about! Fast-forward 20 years, I read conference papers on heat pumps and think: Wow, they call research what we call tinkering!

Exit the scientist and enter my subversive, poetic subconsciousness. They are perhaps not that different.

Isn’t this question – What is research? – remotely related to What is art? Or am I just too fond of satirical submissions to academic journals – both art- and science-related ones? It is maybe not an accident that an artist’s cave house came to my mind.

I have called our solar collector Art from Plastic and Wood tongue-in-cheek, here shown in behind another object awaiting further art-ification:

Organic space probe

An organic space probe, sending signals from a distant, ecologically minded, civilization.

Search Term Poetry and Spam Poetry are just another way of tinkering with something at hand. I was recently baffled by academic articles on so-called Flarf Poetry – so there are at least some experts for whom my so-called art would qualify as such. Don’t worry – I don’t insist of this. But I do wonder if ‘serious’ art is always driven by some sort of necessity, too.

By the way, right when I had the linked post on flarf poetry in the making I was invited to contribute some – to a real serious (?) art project. And so I did – consider this a cliffhanger.

Fragile Technology? (Confessions of a Luddite Disguised as Tech Enthusiast)

I warn you – I am in the mood for random long-winded philosophical ramblings.

As announced I have graduated recently again, denying cap-and-gown costume as I detest artificial Astroturf traditions such as re-importing academic rituals from the USA to Europe. A Subversive El(k)ement fond of uniforms would not be worth the name.

However, other than that I realize that I have probably turned into a technophobe luddite with a penchant for ancestral traditions.

Long-term followers might know what I am heading at again as I could only have borrowed a word as ancestral from Nassim N. Taleb. I have re-read Taleb’s The Black Swan and Antifragile. The most inspirational books are those that provide you with words and a framework to re-phrase what you already know:

Authors theorize about some ancestry of my ideas, as if people read books then developed ideas, not wondering whether perhaps it is the other way around; people look for books that support their mental program. –Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile, Kindle Locations 3405-3406.

I have covered Antifragile at length in an earlier article. In a nutshell, antifragility is the opposite of fragility. This definition goes beyond robustness – it is about systems gaining from volatility and disorder. I will not be able to do this book justice in a blog post, not even a long one. Taleb’s speciality is tying his subject matter expertise (in many fields) to personal anecdotes and convictions (in many fields) – which is why some readers adore his books and others call them unscientific.

I am in the former camp as hardly any other author takes consistency of personal biography and professional occupation and writing that far. I was most intrigued by the notion Skin in the Game which is about being held accountable 100%, about practicing what you preach.

I eat my own cooking. I have only written, in every line I have composed in my professional life, about things I have done, and the risks I have recommended that others take or avoid were risks I have been taking or avoiding myself. I will be the first to be hurt if I am wrong. –Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile, Kindle Locations 631-633

Taleb has the deepest respect for small business owners and artisans – and so do I. He is less kind to university professors, particularly those specialized in economics and employed managers, particularly those of banks.

Some of Taleb’s ideas appear simple (to comprehend, not necessarily to put into practice), often of the What my grandmother told me variety – which he does not deny. But he can make a nerd like me wonder if some things are probably – simply that simple. In case you are not convinced he also publishes scientific papers loaded with math jargon. Taleb mischievously mentions that his ideas called too trivial and obvious have been taken seriously after he translated them into formal jargon.

I don’t read his books as a detached scientist – it is more like talking to somebody, comparing biographies and ideas, and suddenly feeling vindicated.

A mundane example: At times I had given those woman-in-tech-as-a-role-model interviews – despite some reluctance. One time my hesitation was justified. Talking about my ‘bio’ I pointed that I am proud of having thrived for some years as an entrepreneur in a narrow niche in IT. In the written version the interviewers rather put emphasis on the fact I had been employed by a well-known company years before. Fortunately I was given a chance to review and correct it.

Asking for their rationale they made it worse: I have been told that it is an honor to be employed by such a big brand name company. Along similar lines I found it rather disturbing that admirers of my academic track record told me (in retrospect of course, when I was back on a more prestigious track) that working as a consultant for small businesses was just not appropriate.

What is admirable about being the ant in the big anthill?

I had considered my own life and career an attempt – or many attempts – to reconcile, unite or combine things opposite. Often in a serial fashion. In my pre-Taleb reading era I used to quote Randy Komisar’s Portfolio of Passions or Frank Levinson’s 1000 ideas you need to have (and discard again) as a business ower.

Taleb introduced optionality to my vocabulary, borrowed from trader’s jargon: An option is the right but not the obligation to engage in a transaction. Thus you should avoid personal and career decisions that puts you on a track of diminishing options. This is exactly what I felt about staying in academia too long – becoming a perpetual post-doc, finally too old and too specialized for anything else.

Nassim Taleb does not respect nerdiness and smartness as we define it the academic way.

If you “have optionality,” you don’t have much need for what is commonly called intelligence, knowledge, insight, skills, and these complicated things that take place in our brain cells. For you don’t have to be right that often. –Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile, Kindle Locations 3097-3099.

He suggests just passing exams with minimum score. I, nerd of stellar grades and academic fame, declare defeat – I have already repented here. But let me add a minor remark from cultural perspective: I feel that academic smartness is more revered in North America than it is in middle Europe although America values hands-on, non-academic risk taking more, as Taleb points out correctly. I had been surrounded by physicists with an engineering mindset – theoretical physics was for the socially awkward nerds and not a domain you become a rockstar in.

It would not de me good to brag about any sort of academic achievement in my ancestral country – it rather puts you under pressure to prove that you are a genuine human being and still capable of managing daily life’s challenges, such as exchanging a light bulb, despite your absent-minded professor’s attitude. Probably it can be related to our strong tradition of non-academic, secondary education – something Taleb appreciates in the praise of Switzerland’s antifragility.

I have been torn between two different kinds of aspirations ever since: I was that bookish child cut out for academia or any sort of profession concerned with analyzing, writing, staying at the sideline, fence-sitting and commenting. But every time I revisited my career decisions I went for the more tangible, more applied, more involved in getting your hands dirty – and the more mundane. Taleb’s writings vindicate my propensity.

I had always felt at home in communities of self-educated tinkerers – both in IT and in renewable energy. I firmly believe that any skill of value in daily professional life is self-taught anyway, no matter how much courses in subjects as project management you have been forced to take.

For I am a pure autodidact, in spite of acquiring degrees. –Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile, Kindle Locations 4132-4133.

Blame it on my illiteracy but Taleb is the first author who merges (for me) deep philosophical insights with practical and so-to-say ‘capitalist’ advice – perfectly reflecting my own experiences:

My experience is that money and transactions purify relations; ideas and abstract matters like “recognition” and “credit” warp them, creating an atmosphere of perpetual rivalry. I grew to find people greedy for credentials nauseating, repulsive, and untrustworthy. –Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile, Kindle Locations 678-680

I’d rather work some not-too-glorious jobs based on a simple feedback loop, that is: People do want something badly – I do it – they pay me, and I’d rather not (anymore): write applications for research grants in order to convince a committee or execute the corporate plan to meet the numbers.

Taleb provided very interesting historical evidence that so-called innovation has actually been triggered by now forgotten self-educated tinkerers rather than by science applying Soviet-Havard-style planning. You might object to those theories, probably arguing that we never had a man on the moon or the Dreamliner airplane without Soviet-Havard-style research, let alone LHC and the discovery of the Higgs boson. I might object to this objection by hypothesizing that the latter probably does not result in products we desperately really need (which includes big airplanes and business travel).

But I do know the counter-arguments – Einstein and the GPS, Faraday and allegedly useless electromagnetic waves that once will be taxed, WWW and CERN – and I don’t hold very strong opinions on this.

Because of the confirmation problem, one can argue that we know very little about our natural world; we advertise the read books and forget about the unread ones. Physics has been successful, but it is a narrow field of hard science in which we have been successful, and people tend to generalize that success to all science. It would be preferable if we were better at understanding cancer or the (highly nonlinear) weather than the origin of the universe. –Nassim N. Taleb, The Black Swan, Kindle Locations 3797-380

I absolutely do love theoretical physics – when other people listen to meditation music, do yoga, go to church, take walks in the sunset, wax poetic, read Goethe, are bamboozled by renaissance art: I read text books on quantum field theory. There is joy in knowledge for the sake of knowledge. So academics should be paid by the public for providing the raw material.

But I know that Taleb’s analysis is true when applied to some research I have some personal familiarity with. Austria has been a pioneer in solar thermal energy – many home owners have installed glazed solar collectors on their roofs. The origin of that success is tinkering by hobbyists – and solar collectors are still subject to DIY tinkering. Today academics do research in solar thermal energy, building upon those former hobbyist movements. And I know from personal experience and training that academics in applied sciences are really good at dressing up their tinkering as science.

Nassim Taleb also believes that organized education and organized science follows wealth, not the other way round. Classical education in the sense of true erudition is something you acquire because you want to become a better human being. Sending your kids to school in order to boost GDP is a rather modern, post WW II, approach.

Thus I believe in the value of fundamental research in science in the same way as I still believe in the value of a well-rounded education and reading the ancients, as Nassim Taleb does. But it took me several attempts to read Taleb’s book and to write this post to realize that I am skeptical about the sort of tangible value of some aspects of science and technology as they relate to my life here and now.

I enjoyed Taleb’s ramblings on interventionism in modern medicine – one of the chapters in Antifragile that probably polarizes the most. Taleb considers anything living and natural superior to anything artificial and planned by Soviet-Harvard-style research – something better not be tinkered with unless odds are extremely high for positive results. Surgery in life-threatening situations is legitimate, cholesterol and blood pressure reducing medication is not. Ancestral and religious traditions may get it right even if their rationales are wrong: Fasting for example may provide the right stimuli for the human body that is not designed for an over-managed regular, life-hacker’s, over-optimizer’s life-style along the lines of those five balanced daily meals your smartphone app reminds you of. As a disclaimer I have to add: Just as Taleb I am not at all into alternative medicine.

Again, I don’t have very strong opinions about medical treatments and the resolution to the conflict might be as simple as: Probably we don’t get the upsides of life-saving surgery without the downsides of greedy pharmaceuticals selling nice-to-have drugs that are probably even harmful in the long run.

But – again – I find Taleb’s ideas convincing if I try to carry them over to other fields in history of science and technology I have the faintest clue of. Software vendors keep preaching to us – and I was in that camp for some time, admittedly – that software makes us more productive. As a mere user of software forced upon me, by legal requirements, I have often wondered if ancient accountants had been less productive in literally keeping books.

I found anecdotal evidence last year that users of old tools and software are still just as productive – having become skilled in their use, even if they do accounting on clay tablets. This article demonstrates that hopelessly outdated computer hardware and software is still in use today. I haven’t been baffled by ancient computers in military and research but I have been delighted to read this:

Punch-Card Accounting
Sparkler Filters of Conroe, Texas, prides itself on being a leader in the world of chemical process filtration. If you buy an automatic nutsche filter from them, though, they’ll enter your transaction on a “computer” that dates from 1948. Sparkler’s IBM 402 is not a traditional computer, but an automated electromechanical tabulator that can be programmed (or more accurately, wired) to print out certain results based on values encoded into stacks of 80-column Hollerith-type punched cards.
Companies traditionally used the 402 for accounting, since the machine could take a long list of numbers, add them up, and print a detailed written report. In a sense, you could consider it a 3000-pound spreadsheet machine.

I guess the operators of this computer are smiling today, when reading about the NSA spying on us and Russian governmental authorities buying typewriters again.

IBM 403 accounting machine

The machine in the foreground is an IBM 403 accounting machine where the input are punched cards; the machine in the center is an IBM 514 Reproducing Punch apparently connected to the foreground 403 as a summary punch, and the one in the background is another 403 or 402 accounting machine. (Wikimedia, Flickr user ArnoldReinhold)

I don’t advocate reverting to ancient technology – but I don’t take progress and improvements for granted either. Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains plans to release his new book in 2014, titled The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. In his related essay in The Atlantic Carr argues:

It reveals that automation, for all its benefits, can take a toll on the performance and talents of those who rely on it. The implications go well beyond safety. Because automation alters how we act, how we learn, and what we know, it has an ethical dimension. The choices we make, or fail to make, about which tasks we hand off to machines shape our lives and the place we make for ourselves in the world. That has always been true, but in recent years, as the locus of labor-saving technology has shifted from machinery to software, automation has become ever more pervasive, even as its workings have become more hidden from us. Seeking convenience, speed, and efficiency, we rush to off-load work to computers without reflecting on what we might be sacrificing as a result.

Probably productivity enhancements kick in exactly when the impacts outlined by Carr take effect. But I would even doubt the time-saving effects and positive impacts on productivity in many domains where they are marketed so aggressively today.

Show me a single company whose sales people or other road warriors do not complain about having to submit reports and enter the numbers to that infamous productivity tool. As a small business owner I do complain about ever increasing reporting and forecasting duties inflicted upon me by governmental agencies, enterprise customers, or big suppliers – a main driver for me to ‘go small’ in any aspect of my business, by the way. Of course software would ease our bureaucratic pains if the requirements would be the same as when double-entry accounting has been invented by Pacioli in the 15th century. But the more technology John Doe is expected to use today, the more ideas CEOs and bureaucrats dream up – about data they need because John Doe ought to deliver them anyway in an effortless way.

Reading all the articles about the NSA makes me wonder if additions of painful tedious work due to the technology we ought to use is something marginal only I rant about. I had said it often in pre-public-NSA-paranoia times: I would love to see that seamless governmental spying at work to free me from that hassle. I had been confronted with interfaces and protocols not working and things too secure in the sense of people locking themselves out of the system.

So in summary I feel like an anti-technology consultant often, indulging in supporting people with working productively despite technology. Since this seems quite a negative approach I enjoy making wild speculative connections and mis-use interdisciplinary writings such as Taleb’s to make my questionable points.

Greatest Innovation Ever

I like Top Something Lists, in particular the hilarious variety.

In a more serious state of mind I wondered what a list of the top inventions or top innovations of humankind might comprise. (Nitpickers, I don’t care about distinguishing ‘innovation’ from ‘invention’ here.)

Random googling yields list items such as The Internet, Money, Plumbing, and The Power of Story – here is a random list of lists:

The last list contains what my biased mind was searching for: Electricity, Water Power, The Light Bulb, The Steam Engine, The Electromagnet, The ElectronSemiconductors, The Transistor, and of course again The Internet. I argue the greatest innovation uses all these and is as important as Plumbing – actually our toilets and water supply would not work without it today: I nominate …

The Power Grid

… visualized like that in any news report on utilities or the grid I have ever seen on TV. So I adhere to the conventions:

You might say that I am cheating because the power grid is not a singular invention but rather a conglomerate of diverse inventions, held together by the glue of standardization, politics, and committees. I would argue I picked the grid for that very reason.

The more I learned about the power grid the more I wondered that it works at all – at that amazing level of availability. In Austria the average downtime per customer is about 45 minutes per year, that is electric power is available 99,99% of the time. Experts state that this even has a negative impact of our ability to cope with sudden blackouts. This is called the paradox of vulnerability: the less vulnerable you are as per statistics, the less you care about very improbably but disastrous events.

At every moment the consumption of electrical energy needs to be balanced with the demand. This sounds trivial but it means that if you turn on your oven, somewhere in your country (actually: in your control area) a gas turbine needs to spin a bit faster. In Austria the gates at a pumped-storage hydropower plant will open a bit more.

If you turn on your computer or other electronic device the compensation needs to be more sophisticated as modern devices distort the nice sine function that alternate current used to be in the old times.

Kölnbreinsperre from Arlhöhe

Storage lake, Malta power plants in Carinthia, southern Austria. Maximum power is 1,3 GW which is more than 10% of Austria’s peak power. (Wikimedia)

If consumption rises faster than demand the frequency of AC power decreases. All generators rotate in sync – most of continental Europe is one large synchronous area. The energy ‘stored’ in rotation is proportional to the square of the frequency. If the energy is not consumed the rotating masses can’t get rid of it. Since the factor of proportionality is the moment of inertia you can compensate for changes in demand by tweaking the generator, e.g. by controlling the flow of water. The grid codes agreed upon by all countries in a control area state that the operators of generators need to respond within seconds.

If something goes badly wrong the synchronous area would split into regions where generators spin with different frequencies – preventing to flow energy between these areas. This had happened in a blackout in 2006 in Europe, which was triggered by a – planned – disconnect of power lines in Germany: allowing for a ship to pass.

UCTE area split at 4 11 2006

Europe’s synchronous area split into three regions in November 2006 (Wikimedia)

What amazes me even more is that the system does still work so well, even after introducing feedback loops governed by a ‘capitalist’ market. I consider the power grid a combination of at least three networks: the network of electrical power, the communications network (stuff for cybersecurity nightmares), and a market of suppliers and customers. We can expect many new types of participants in this market as the producing consumer – the prosumer – and intermediaries aggregating demand and supply.

I am sometimes worried about the consequences of adding more smartness, intelligence and automation for technical and, above all, for commercial reasons. I am not that concerned about hackers changing the frequency of generators, but about perfectly well-controlled computers running mad at the electricity stock exchange (or by some harmless test command wreaking havoc – as described at the bottom of this post.).

In February 2012 is was really cold in middle Europe for about two weeks, and basically all power plants were up and running – not much reserve left for controlling frequency and power. There had been rumors on speculations impacting the stability of the power grid in Germany: Since the stock exchange prices of electricity were high, the balancing group representatives were said to have tweaked their forecasts. As a result the power needed was not standard power to be purchased on a market designed for that but precious energy that should have been dedicated to providing stability. The German regulator explained later that these alleged speculations would not have made sense in hindsight but it cannot be ruled out that representatives were tempted to do that beforehand.

I am aware of my very superficial description of how the market for electrical energy works – I have just tried to find anecdotal evidence of the entanglement of technical and economic feedback loops. The blackout in California in 2003 is often quoted as a textbook example of a software bug affecting infrastructure, as well as the market manipulations causing the Californian ‘electricity crisis’ have been considered an unintended side-effect of market liberalization.

This is all very interesting for the engineering, physics and IT geek (even including the geek who indulges in applying physics-style differential equations to economics). But the consumer of electrical power in me simply concludes that at all odds you should try to make yourself as self-sufficient as possible.

Advertisement for Windmill Electric Power Generating system 1897

Advertisement for Windmill Electric Power Generating system 1897. “Harper’s New Monthly Magazine” New York (Wikimedia)


For German readers – and actually in order to keep track of that myself – I add some sources only available in German:

Statistics of disruptions by the Austrian regulator, incl. exact definitions for calculating the minutes of disruption quoted in the post.

Malta hydropower plants in Wikipedia.

Stability of the German power grid in February 2012:
Austrian newspaper article – translating to ‘Gambling until Blackout’, a bit sensationalist.
Evaluation by the German regulator, see page 61. They really use the term temptation.