Friday, October 23, 2015

Mars One Needs a Dose of Reality in the U.A.E

I'd taken a stand not to spill digital ink about Mars One on this blog. That was until two days ago, when the crew of Dubai Eye 103.8 - Alex Hirschi and Tim Elliot - invited Mars One chief Bas Lansdorp to speak on the evening's Drive Live show. I started to shake my head. 

In 2014, Mars One had pinched some local nerves when the grand mufti of Dubai issued a fatwa (an Islamic ruling) prohibiting Muslims from being volunteers for one-way interplanetary travel.

But on the radio show, there was little sign of defeat. With continual praising of the U.A.E and it's forward thinking stance, Mr. Lansdorp's tireless dance for manned one-way trips to Mars might have gotten more than a few listeners, albeit expats, breathless. 

And those listeners might be forgiven. Afterall, October was the month when NASA hyped a bit about the presence of liquid water on Mars. Ridley Scott had also released The Martian, an entertaining but pseudo-scientific space survivalist movie about a lone astronaut fighting for his life on Mars in the wake of a fairytale dust storm.

Mr. Lansdorp wasn't here to merely get cozy with two U.A.E volunteers he'd shortlisted as potential crew members for this future "mission". As it's becoming painfully evident, Mars One is around $15 million short of funding, and it's come to bear that some of it's money making strategies didn't help.

An intelligent listener would have recalled that Mr. Lansdorp had recently admitted at a Mars Society face-off with an MIT team (who happily demolished him for the seemingly brazen lack of any feasibility in the $6 billion dollar mission plan) that Mars One doesn't have the financial capability currently to pay any credible scientific group to undertake full-fledged R&D studies.

The other cat that jumped out of the bag in the same debate with MIT was that, as of August 2015, the Mars One mission had no fixed project scope, no fixed project time-line and no fixed project cost. It was evident that he had little concrete to offer in the rebuttal of MIT's independent feasibility assessment. Unfortunately, Mr. Lansdorp's weak conclusion that day was : "The Mars One mission is not to do the mission the way as it is exactly described on the website."

Sadly, none of his comments from the debate have been posted as an updated disclaimer on the Mars One mission road-map. The "plan" continues to hold that it will send one way manned missions every two years to Mars beginning in 2026. 

Why, pray, is there a need for Mars One if it's own chief calls into questions the Mars One plan? Might it be wrong now to assume that several hundred patrons might have been duped?  I won't be trying to answer how these people justify their return on investment in this case. It's really fuzzy.

But now you say hindsight is 20/20, that I'm just another naysayer piggybacking on the MIT study. While I understand any technical product will not sell without a strong commercial proposal, Mars One is awfully lacking in the former. One wonders whether Mr. Lansdorp truly stays awake at night as he fishes out new reasons to try and oversell this plan, particularly in the U.A.E.

At this point, I'd like to state two things in my analysis. One, I find interesting, is that the Mars One chief appears to take pleasure in bashing NASA's seemingly slow MARS schedule as the basis for his role in introducing Mars One.  

To be honest, this can be forgiven on NASA's part for the U.S Congress' space exploration budget cuts in the recent past. NASA must also get a bit of the benefit of doubt because it follows a prudent systems-validation based approach to assessing technical feasibility in putting people and equipment in space. 

Secondly, Mr. Lansdorp appears to be fixated on a misunderstanding that the Apollo Lunar program had virtually nothing to show technically when Kennedy made his 1961 speech spurring the moon mission. On this basis, he seems to be telling everyone that his Mars One plan deserves a chance as well.

Never mind the fact that the Apollo manned moon program had some 12,000 companies, 400,000 people and a backing of $25 billion to make it happen. Never mind the fact that it had no less than 33 flights, 22 of which were unmanned missions to specifically qualify the launch vehicle and spacecraft for manned flight and 4 of the 11 total manned flights were to man-rate the final 7 flights for lunar missions. Also, never mind the facts that NASA had the Saturn rockets going for them and the genius in Wernher Von Braun to provide technical advice during those years.

What a lot of people will tend to the forget is that the real need for an Apollo mission to the moon was never really scientific. The strongest impetus for Apollo was the uncompromising competition the Americans had with the Soviets in the space race. The Soviet secrecy around it's own space program never made the Americans comfortable that they were any ahead in this race, even to the very day Apollo 11 launched. Rational or irrational, this conveniently placed call of the Cold War captured hearts and minds and turned a nation on it's heels.

In short, yes the moon mission was extremely risky but NASA had a big part of the workable solution already in it's arsenal, which they tested the living daylights out of. They managed out risk. They also had a resounding patriotic call to arms behind the moon endeavor. Both of these are truly lacking in the Mars One plan. 

Mars One, as it currently stands, calls for taking ordinary people on a never-to-return one way trip to Mars in 2026. Due to the nature of this mission, one might be right to assume that these people are to live dull lives to their deaths as technicians - building, fixing and repairing technology - in a mega experiment that has seldom been tried before.

One has to appreciate Bas Lansdorp's energetic parade going around the world flaunting Mars One. But I believe it would be in his best interests to remain truthful about the project realities, re-assess his technical and cost plans and make modifications in the light of technological and procurement readiness. Right now, the Mars One plan rests, at best, on faulty and misleading data.

There are the geo-political challenges of an Outer Space Treaty. In this regard, I predict Mr. Lansdorp will have little option but to sooner or later join hands in cooperation with the rest of the world's space agencies. Countries aren't going to be friendly knowing that a single entity might potentially monopolize the exploitation of areas of Mars, which by his own admission on 103.8,  is a behavior that cannot be controlled from earth once the mission has landed on the planet.

No less important are the unsaid conflicts of interests in demanding the unquestioning service of human volunteers in such a short time and cozying up with investor driven business commitments and schedules. 

We're lacking in the long term understanding of planetary group survival through a longitudinal study here on earth. Some papers written after outpost like simulations exist and do not paint a pretty picture. A 2009 paper by the Mars Society on stress and coping in a 4 month arctic Mars simulation on Devon Island in Canada concluded, very subtly :

"Stress increased for males while decreasing for females. Males consistently used more avoidant coping while females utilized task coping and social emotional coping. Males also demonstrated higher levels of excitement, tiredness, and loneliness. Simulations situated in environments characterized by prolonged real isolation and environmental challenges appear to provoke true demands for adaptation rather than temporary situational accommodation as has been evidenced by shorter simulations in laboratories or more benign environments".

We're yet to take this further and quantify the human capability to cope under long term duress. Hollywood cannot dictate how you will eat , drink, procreate (or whether babies will be mutation free), romance, control criminal behaviors and so on. These have to be tried and tested in environments as close as possible in conditions to Mars.

I doubt the leaders of Mars One will not know all this, but the exploration of U.A.E to build an outpost, where temperatures climb to 45 degree C in summer, is rather strange. More to the point, how this plays out in the context of an active fatwa is a mystery.

Never to be one taken by hype, I stand cautious of the Mars One adventures. There's a lot of things to make Mars One flop. But there's a huge room to correct mistakes now.

Friday, October 16, 2015

This Changes Everything : A Book Review

This forms a book review titled "Ahead of her time! Klein maybe the Rachel Carson of the 21st century" that I wrote earlier today on 

Naomi Klein is an award winning Canadian journalist responsible for two other international best sellers, The Shock Doctrine and No Logo, both of which I haven't read. This book, "This Changes Everything : Capitalism vs The Climate Change", becomes her 4th book. Based on reading an original Penguin soft-copy from start to end, my take is as follows :

The crux of the book is simple and complex at the same time. Klein says that most of humanity go on enjoying the benefits of a post-modern, self-gratifying capitalistic life, expecting increasingly greater resource usage but from a finite planet. In doing so, we collectively exhibit a form of cognitive dissonance by not treating climate change as the quintessential crisis it can become. It repeatedly knocks on our door when scientists tell us we got to be doing more to stay within a +2 degree C limit in a warming world, but we conveniently sweep it under our carpets of ignorance. After-all, it's easier to do nothing at all.

Why is that the case? Klein highlights the complexity of inaction , in that it lies in the apparent in-scalability of going against the status quo, the prevailing culture of "tap, exploit and waste" that we are all born into and what we come to pass on to our kids. This is a product of the widespread economic model that powerful elite organizations who own the means of production, who lobby politicians and who pay our own wages directly or indirectly have managed to disseminate. Without significantly changing how this model operates, not much can be done to fight the impending climate crisis.

Rather than being a self-righteous, gloating environmentalist, Klein claims that she was among this crowd of climate deniers roughly until the point when a conversation with Navarro Llanos, the Bolivian ambassador to the World Trade Organization, brought her to the realization of the overwhelming crisis level of the problem as well as the numerous grassroots-level opportunities that lay ahead to bring changes. However, the changes would have to be uncompromising, they would challenge everything we know about our current economic and capitalistic models. Therefore, it would have to change everything we take for granted. Therein lies the background to the book's title.

I'd like to mention at this juncture that there appears to be two underlying emotional themes that made the issue more personal to Klein, and she admits it has been a difficult experience. One was during the reading of a bed-time story to her two-year-old called Looking for a Moose. This event produced an epiphany that her baby boy might never get to see a Moose, thanks to cases she'd heard during visits to Northern Alberta that moose drinking water laced with toxins from the tar sands oil extraction process were showing mutations from within.

The second motivator for her was the deep connection to the ecological crisis that she drew from her experience going through two miscarriages and being suggested by friends and colleagues to explore high risk, unnatural interventions. To her, the climate change response is no different - proposed solutions that are increasingly high risk with unproven technological answers. A famous example (which is cited in the book) becomes the Geo-engineering circle of scientists who claim they can cool the planet by artificially pumping massive amounts of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to mimic volcanic explosions. 

Perhaps more poignantly powerful is her suggestion to look to the earth as our own mother, with her own fertility challenges that are a consequence of our extractivism and our life choices. It interferes with her fertility cycles and her need to regenerate. Putting the earth in compromise draws full circle, until our own existence is compromised.

Between these beginning and concluding emotional chapters, an emboldened Klein beats up several actors of the climate change story with dizzying array of facts and case studies, most of which seem to have been referenced and cataloged at the end of the book. 

For example, she highlights the problem of climate denial, battling world-views and need for ideological shifts in consumerism, the bizarre problems with our current world trade treaties, how toxic extractivist relationships lead to the degeneration and downfall of communities, how to read beneath pulpit messages of businessmen who appear to be messiahs at first, the seemingly illogical solutions proposed by certain segments of climate scientists, the death and destruction laid behind by the Shells and BP's of the world and so on. 

Klein doesn't end without two or three cautionary tales of non-violent community uprisings (called Blockadia) to the ecological crisis and highlights the continuing need for government to support indigenous populations, who unfortunately being poor and powerless, become the prime victims of climate change.

As an engineer, what I admire about this book is Klein's ability to repeatedly portray the earth as a complex system, where a small but artificially induced change somewhere in the system may mean unforeseen chain reactions with the potential to cause chaos somewhere else. Man appears woefully short of tools to predict the full consequence of his actions with any high degree of accuracy, yet we somehow never seem short of solutions that have never been tried before on massive scales.

I also admire is the lengths to which Klein goes to remind us that change is possible and perhaps the issue of climate change is our best and last shot to re-invent ourselves. For this, she draws on the past - the times of the great Depression, or the civil war, where it so happened that when we collectively as a population got together and understood and recognized there was a crisis, we moved to change it through mass movements and periods of struggle. History, as shown through these movements, would never be the same again.

This Changes Everything is a tireless work of 5 years, bringing to mind a resounding "Rachel Carson" type call to arms. Klein is refreshing and uncompromising at the same time, never sugar coating the roots of this problem with anything more than much needed criticism. In doing so, she has been meticulous to document the sources of her information for those wishing to explore further.

The reason I give 4 stars is not because of the quality of the message, it is in how the message was delivered. It is bit unfortunate that the two emotional themes that Klein highlights as her writing motivation are in two different ends of the book, which may cause several readers to miss if they hadn't read it end to end. Therefore, some readers maybe forgiven for misunderstanding what really pulls Klein so strongly into this subject.

Secondly, in trying to appeal to a wider audience, Klein may want to look into releasing a condensed version of the book. Currently at 450 pages, it becomes a tough read for most unless there was a significant motivator to push through. Its not easy to read at times and there is significant potential to improve.

I'd like to end by saying that I have some strong opinions on this subject, both for and against the current practices in the oil/gas industry. I'd like to analyze if many of the things that Klein proposes in her book can become reality for the industry. This will become the topic for a later post, I promise. Thanks.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Diesel Deception : An Ode to the Volkswagen Jetta

During my time in the United States, colleagues and I would greatly enjoy discussions on diesel cars. Like, why weren't there enough of them in the U.S already? We knew diesel fuel holds about 12% more heat energy than the same amount of gasoline. In general, that meant, a diesel takes you farther with lesser fuel than a similar sized gasoline engined car. The Jetta happened to be everyone's favorite postercar for these discussions.

A comparison of a 2013 VW Jetta, with a 2.0L turbocharged engine running diesel and a 2.0L turbcharged Mitsubishi Lancer running premium gasoline shows stark differences. For roughly similar curb weights and passenger compartment volumes of 94 cu.ft, the U.S Department of Energy tells us that Jetta gives a 32 miles per gallon in combined city/highway compared to the Lancer's 20 miles to the gallon.

It also takes $43 to fill up a Lancer compared to $37 to fill the Jetta. Over a 5 year life cycle, compared to an average new car, you end up saving $2000 in fuel costs with the Jetta but you end up spending some $3000 more with the Lancer. What this also means is that you won't be complaining about the Jetta purchase 3-5 years down the road, as you'll end up breaking even (initial cost to fuel savings) at some point in that time frame.

Another point we are told is that both upstream in the fuel development cycle, and downstream, at the tailpipe, GHG emissions are lower in the Jetta than the gasoline Lancer. Below is the comparison from that same year, in grams of CO2 equivalent emissions (CO2 + Methane + NOx).

The EPA Smog Rating represents the amount of health-damaging and smog-forming airborne pollutants the vehicle emits. New vehicles are equipped with a sticker that shows the relative level of smog causing emissions created by the vehicle compared to others on the market. Smog-causing emissions include unburned hydrocarbons (HC) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx). Scoring ranges from 1 (worst) to 10 (best).

Those against diesel vehicles like to claim that diesel cars are nasty smog emitters. However what I find is that both the 2013 and 2014 VW Jettas appeared to have achieved the U.S EPA Smartway certification for reduced smog.

The Lancer may not have been the most ideal car to compare with the Jetta but I'm much given to my salesmanship when I think about diesel cars. They just makes sense in a world of climate change!

And so friends and I would chat about why there weren't more diesel cars, about gasoline fuel subsidies, higher priced aftertreatment emissions requirements and so on and so forth. Made for a good water cooler conversation.

With cars like Jetta being somewhat of a jewel among a bevy of polluters on our roads, it must come as a shock that possibly everything I wrote earlier about it's emissions ratings might be wrong.

The NYT has been running the story as the "diesel deception", where admittedly, senior executives from VW told EPA officials, hot on the chase for over a year, that inconsistencies in emissions values between pre-sale vehicle testing versus on-road numbers was because of a software trick.

I'm not aware of what VW actually used but the engine software in question recognized the onset of a test cycle and kicked into action for a better behaved engine performance. Typically, this involves a manipulation of the timing of fuel injection relative the movement of the piston. In normal driving, this software can be deactivated, allowing the car to tradeoff fuel economy for more pollution.

From a reading of this article, an unlikely set of heroes have emerged in discovering the fraud - a group of ex-EPA officials from the International Council on Clean Transportation who elected a research group at West Virginia University headed by Arvind Thiruvengadam, an Indian PhD in Mechanical Engineering, to test a small bunch of diesel cars on the road all in the name of science.

The ICCT is lucky to have chosen 2 out of 3 vehicles it proposed to WVU to be Volkswagens. Thiruvengadam's team, knowing how diesels should perform on the road from past testing experience, raised the red flag when they noticed anomalous postings. According to the article, some emissions values were apparently greater than those from heavy duty trucks. A baseline testing by a group from CARB would confirm the fraudulent emissions values and give credence to the WVU observation.

In the United States, emissions standards are managed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the Federal Tier II specifications. The state of California has special vehicle emissions standards (CARB limits), and other states may choose to follow either the national or California standards.

Around 14 U.S states have adopted the CARB standards. It's instructive to compare the Federal emissions limits against the CARB limits to see the difference in stringency.

Under the 2004-2014 California LEVII motor vehicle missions, vehicles are restricted to the following numbers :

EPA's Tier II limits for light duty vehicles are the categorized into bins as the following :

From the two charts, I notice that a LEV II certification (in NOx for example) is equivalent to Bin 5 certification from the federal Tier II chart, while California SULEV certification is approximately equivalent to federal Bin 2. This is truly the case. California is extremely stringent in emissons.

Several other news articles on the same scandal state that the that Jetta posted values exceeding the U.S. NOx emissions standard by 15 to 35 times. The VW Passat was 5 to 20 times the standard.

Going purely off these numbers, I can place a low and high end ranges for what the researchers may have noticed during testing. I will assume the Jetta and the Passat were both 2014 models :

If these ranges are correct, the actual emissions performance of the VW Jetta places it in between an older/expired Bin 10b-10c and a Bin 11 vehicle category at the low end and entirely off the emissons charts at the high end.  The Passat would be between a Bin 8 and a Bin 10a category at the low end and off the emissions charts on the high end.

A momentary reflection of the fact that the greenhouse warming potential of N2O is over 300 times that of CO2 and that VW cars emitting several times their regulated values were sold and operated throughout the world for several years now will bring the gravity of the matter to light.  

That VW was trying to attain more fuel economy on the road by turning off the software is not a big surprise to me.  Engine OEM's have been doing some ridiculous things in the recent past to meet the U.S Federal Tier II and CARB regulations. From personal experience in diesel engine design, exhaust gas recirculation to combat NOx flies in the face of everything they told us about positive engine delta P, which is one in several factors affecting brake specific fuel consumption.

Specific to diesel engines is the PM vs NOx tradeoff, where if you do one thing in your combustion process to reduce NOx (typically with cooler temperatures), you start to see PM increase and vice versa. This is just an example in modern diesel engine design of a balancing act between several different parameters. Today's diesel engines are several thousand dollars more expensive than older ones because of several aftertreatment devices and control systems crammed in between engine and tailpipe. Manufacturers have to keep getting innovative year on year to meet stringent limits.

However, short of feeling sympathetic, VW still deserves a wider explanation to it's audience. To me, there are several other engineering and management decisions that could have been taken as emissions strategies. A case in point was during the roll into EPA 2010 emissions limits, when Cummins choose to adopt Selective Catalytic Reduction in their diesel engines versus Navistar shunning SCR and sticking to EGR. Cummins won with their technology solution, while Navistar failed to comply with the limits and paid $3700 fines on each non-compliant truck engine.

Precisely who in VW signed off on rigging the tests out of all other options beats me.  How did they even justify the risks that this involved, both financially and market reputation wise? These and similar corporate responsiblity type questions were posed by two Schulich business school professors Crane and Matten on their blog as well. 

The fallout could be huge. Volkswagen Jetta, for a long time, has been a reasonably priced small family car running one of the most efficient combustion engines around. However several people are going to sell their Jettas after the recall. The resale value on this vehicle will plummet like a rock. 

You can't discount the fact that that people will start to lose a bit of faith in the diesel engine itself. A market that's already straining to make grounds on a stage full of petrol cars might be looking at more struggles ahead. At the moment, we have few breakthrough engine technologies to meet environmental limits while staying commercially viable. With the VW scandal, one piece of the solution turnS out to be no solution at all, atleast in the eyes of the average Joe.

The bright side to this news is that organizations like EPA and several others around the globe will find out a method to defeat violators on the road. Maybe some new working groups will be formed to formulate off-cycle engine tests to cross-verify with dyno results. Perhaps some new independant agencies will form to assist customers in this verification. The stage is open for discussion.

Automotive safety is closely linked to the formation of such groups. The very reason why Ralph Nader brought about the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966 was because of alleged design flaws in the suspension system of the 1959 Chevrolet Corvair. Before that fiasco in which a few people were even killed, the Corvair would go on to be named "Car of the Year" in 1960.

In another case with very close resemblance to the VW software hack, EPA had taken a group of diesel engine manufacturer's to task in 1998 for cheating during the FTA test cycle. What is strange to me is that the same problem has come to bite them now and it was a public university that first documented the issue. I fully expect a justice department hearing to call up EPA officials demanding an explanation to this oversight.

Perhaps now is the best time for some VW executives to read up on these pages in history.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

U.A.E Fuel Deregulation and Some Implications

July 28 Update : U.A.E Fuel prices committee has released revised fuel prices for August 2015.

In what's most likely a watershed moment in the U.A.E economy, from August 2015 petrol prices will no longer stay regulated at $0.47/liter as has been the case for many years. Diesel prices will decrease. The decision is, as I see it, in line with several precursors steering the U.A.E towards a realistic existence amidst our 21st century issues. Let's take a look at some of these.

The U.A.E government's strategy for a "Green Economy", a vision launched in 2012, aims for a reduction in domestic consumption of oil by 7-10%, natural gas by 7-20% and electricity by 11-15% year on year through to 2030. An 18.4% CO2 emissions contribution from the transportation sector (2011 World Bank data) doesn't appear to support that vision.

The Dubai Strategic Plan 2015 had the Road and Transportation Authority (RTA) setting a target of 30% of the population using public transport in 2020, compared with 12% in 2010 (UAE State of Green Economy Report, 2014).

To cope with the ever-rising traffic volume and road congestion in Dubai, the Salik toll collection system was rolled out in 2007. In October 2013, car-pooling was legalized.

Lots of money was pumped into the vitalizing a metro and the tram system. Biodiesel was investigated for the public buses. In Abu Dhabi, a park and ride system was started whereby someone from the outskirts could park their car and take a shuttle into the interior of the city for free.

Charging stations were introduced in a move to build an infrastructure for electric vehicles.

A Dubai Bicycle Plan aims at providing 850km of bikeways in strategically located areas and other cycle tracks have already been developed for the sports minded.

The U.A.E GDP grew 27 times since the 1975, largely supported by oil and gas revenues. In a double whammy, $50/barrel oil price not only squeezes that share but also discourages the proliferation of renewable energy technologies. It gives an opportunity for everyone to sit up and take notice of the gorilla in the room - regulated pump prices. If you ask me, this has been long overdue.

What might some of the implications be from new fuel prices to be announced soon?

1) Firstly, people taking long trips are going to obviously going to think twice. Let us suppose gas price in U.A.E increases to $1/liter, a 113% increase. Driving a car with an average fuel efficiency of 25 mpg (9.4 L/100km, a figure representative of my 2 year old Mitsubishi), a round trip to :

a) Sharjah (22.08km away) and back would cost 4.2L of petrol and 4.2 x $1 = $4.2 = 15.79 AED versus 7.52 AED with current price of $0.47/L.
b) Abu Dhabi (152.4km away) and back would cost 28.66L of petrol and 28.66 x $1 = $28.66 = 107.76 AED versus 51.74 AED with current price of $0.47/L.

In both these cases, one can expect roughly the same % increase in travel costs as the 113% increase in fuel costs.

2) I see more people investing in GPS units (best "Ecoroute", that kind of thing) and utilizing smart driving services like apps, which give real time traffic information. Trip planning could take more prominence.

3) I hope this sets in motion a massive awareness for fuel efficient vehicles. It makes promise for vehicles such as the Toyota Prius, Nissan Leaf or the Tesla BEV's. It also makes promise for diesel cars. While their first costs might be a bit on the high side, the lifecycle operation costs of using a higher energy density fuel will be low.  I'd like to see these vehicles in U.A.E showrooms ASAP. A hybrid or a diesel should be choices that people can make without having to resort to importing. I'm a bit upset there has been a vacuum in the UAE so far for these models.

4) I hope it allows people to think about methods to economic driving as well.  Less displacement is really better. Turbos are not just for sportscars. Driving slower is good for your pocket. Lower engine RPM's are good. This has the benefit of reducing speeds on Dubai roads as well. And does a family of 2 really need a towering 4x4? An Aston Martin to go to Carrefour? How about a Toyota or a Kia for that purpose? Retailers and showrooms have got some work to do to in educating the masses about these things.

5) I suspect the fuel price hike will change the trend for people to clog up toll-free roads. The difference between money saved by avoidance relative to the extra fuel needed to go the longer toll-free distance will most likely vanish.

6) Bicycle commuting lanes on the roads? Anyone? I'd champion this any day. We'll have to wait and see if the RTA plans on introducing dedicated lanes on the roads so that those who don't wish to drive or take the public transpo have an option. While it's easy to say this, I imagine a single bicycle track, an artery, running from the innards of Deira all the way to Jebal Ali along the Sh. Zayed Road would be just awesome. It could have multiple take off points so people could divert to key locations along the way. I don't see this happening any time soon but I eagerly await a more comprehensive picture of the Dubai Canal works to see what we can expect come 2017-2018.

7) Status boosting is the itch to buy a gas guzzling V8 and a 4 digit number plate to go along so you look good at the water cooler in the office. Well, I for one do hope the fuel degregulation makes a strong attempt to demolish this trend because it borders on discourteousness to the rest of the economizing society.

8) What I would also like to see is a massive turnaround in the trucking fleet in the U.A.E. This is one of the other low hanging fuits for improvement in terms of fuel efficiency and emissions. To see clean stuff coming out of the tailpipe from a rickety Volvo or a people carrier is, I suspect, what many people would also like to see while driving on Sh. Zayed Road. It's about time people in the trucking fleet community started talking about EGR, SCR systems, clean combustion diesel, things of that nature. Educate the drivers as well, especially about proper tire pressures! Why? Because it eats into fuel efficiency!

I'd like to conclude that if you're one among the bunch looking for a vehicle in 2015/16, knock yourself out and go through this handy EPA dataset of vehicles listed according to fuel economy. While I hope there's a datasheet more representative of vehicles in the U.A.E, it should at the minimum give someone a clue about what is the state of the art in fuel economy numbers these days. Thanks.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Human Power at the Tour de France

To technically appreciate bicycle racing in the Tour de France is to fundamentally appreciate Newtonian physics, although purists will disagree to such bland reductionism. If you want to race up a steep mountain road, you need a net human power exceeding the retarding effects of tire rolling resistance and gravity.  When the road is a bit more nice and flat and where you tend to reach higher speeds, you need a net human power exceeding the retarding effects of aerodynamic drag. 

If you have large pockets, have your own bike fitted with a cycling power meter and inspect the wattage as you pedal. If you're savvier with numbers, fire up an MS Excel and program a little spreadsheet based on the math described in this paper by Martin et al titled "A Mathematical Model for Road Cycling Power". It should give you numbers that are unsurprisingly close enough to the reading from a power meter (exception to high windy days) because as mentioned earlier, cycling is Newtonian physics. 

The figure of merit for a Tour de France cyclist can be represented in terms of speed, absolute power, or power to weight ratio. Since the Tour is always decided in the mountains, being able to ride a bicycle uphill for long periods of time at somewhere between 10-15 mph (16-24 kph) is top class. During a sudden acceleration, a strategic move called an "attack" in cycling, being able to punch 18-20 mph (29-30 kph) for 10-20 seconds at a time is sheer top class. 

Power wise, being able to maintain between 330-350 watts for 20 or more minutes is great, somewhere around 380-400 watts or greater is top class. Power to weight ratio wise, a figure between 5.8-6.0 watts/kilogram is what it takes to deliver serious firepower in the mountains. Therefore, it doesn't assist you if you weigh 100 kilos rather than 70 kilos, because 70 x 6 = 420 watts is easier than 100 x 6 = 600 watts to do the same job.

The power to weight ratio allows for comparison between different riders. Since margins at the Tour is over minutes and seconds on a climb, a difference of 1 watt/kilogram between two riders makes the difference between sitting overall in top 10 or sitting overall in top 20 spot. In terms of money, that's worth something to a guy who earns his bread racing a bicycle. It's really as simple as that.

Riders often "warm up" on stationary bikes before the start of a stage, particularly before the start of a time trial, which is an individual race against the clock. They have a warm up routine, an instruction telling them how many minutes to spend at specific power levels.

Below is such a warmup sheet pasted on Alberto Contador's bike during a recent Tour de France. Alberto is a top tier professional cyclist and rides for Team Saxo Tinkoff. Inspect the numbers. He is asked to warm up at less than 150 watts, ramp up his output from there 30 watts each time all the way to 420 watts, followed by an easy spin at less than 150 watts. For an average individual, reaching 380-420 watts for extended periods of time can involve profuse sweating, high heart rates and dry-as-bone breathing.

A recent video posted online (see below) by hackers shows power and speed data of Chris Froome from Stage 15 of the 2013 Tour de France. On this particular day, Froome became the first British rider to win on the high mountain road to the summit of Mont Ventoux. Known as the "Giant of Provence", this road has a staggering average gradient of 7.6% for 21 kilometers. Froome would go on to win the 2013 Tour de France.

The Tour is especially interesting because of these dramatic incidences, where a community of rabid fans view extraordinary cycling performance and begin to have their own doubts about them. While there are people who can make careless mistakes with statistics, a simple understanding of physics and the records broken in the past Tours can tell any average Joe what might be possible in the realm of "ethical" sporting. I leave any judgment of Froome's performance aside and simply enjoy the action.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Decline of Naturally Aspirated

For several years now, the writing has been getting clearer on the wall. NA engines are becoming niche, and there's little evidence that automakers are running off to design new NA engines from scratch apart from a few modifications year on year.

A casual look at this year's 2015 Ward's 10 Best engines shows that 8 out of the 10 winners are forced induction and 6 are specifically turbocharged engines. (Incidentally, my favorite "sports" car is on this list with its fine 6.2L supercharged V-8... actually this makes it twice in a row as it had won in 2014 as well).

An article in June's Engine Technology International puts some figures to the case for turbos. Apparently, even the worst turbocharged engine will get you an honest mean effective pressure of 15 bar. Put into other words, these low end turbocharged engines already put out a specific power of 100 kW/liter, which is roundabout the same figure the best NA engines muster today.

There's really no competition, or is there ? What can possibly compete?

Electric superchargers are independent of parasitic losses but lose a ton of power in energy conversion. Further, they are only transient devices. Commercial entries to "electric boosters" have been labeled a scam. They don't work.

PHEVs offer promise, since they supply instant torque on startup and eliminate the need for turbo assisted low speed torque. Hybrids also cut back on range anxiety since you can technically always fall back on an IC engine. However, battery costs are looking prohibitive for most people right now. In countries like the U.A.E where I live, the electric infrastructure is only starting to pop up, and in minuscule amounts.

At some point in the next few years, I'll buy a new car and it won't be special to tell others it's turbocharged.  I'll most likely get disgusted looks if I say it's NA.

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Ward's 10 best engines of 2015 (link) :

127-kW Electric Motor (BMW i3 electric vehicle)
6.2L OHV V-8 (Chevrolet Corvette Stingray)
6.2L Supercharged OHV V-8 (Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat)
1.0L Turbocharged DOHC 3-cyl. (Ford Fiesta)
100-kW Fuel Cell (Hyundai Tucson FCV)
1.5L Turbocharged DOHC 3-cyl. (Mini Cooper)
3.0L Turbodiesel DOHC V-6 (Ram 1500 EcoDiesel)
2.0L Turbocharged DOHC H-4 (Subaru WRX)
1.8L Turbocharged DOHC 4-cyl. (Volkswagen Golf)
2.0L Turbocharged  DOHC 4-cyl. (Volvo S60)

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Earthquakes Highlight Need To Review Masonry Practices In Developing Countries

Dharahara or Bhimsen Tower, a famous 62m high historical structure in Kathmandu, has been toppled today by a 7.9 Magnitude Earthquake. For an average fee of a dollar, visitors could climb its spiral staircase and view the skies over Kathmandu. Given it's popularity, tourists from several countries might have been there today. Any number of guesses can be taken at the casualties from the disaster. 

I borrowed a pic floating on Twitter taken in the aftermath of the quake which show nothing much but 1/8th of the Tower left and a diagonal cut terminating at its end.

Masonry is poor in tensile strength but great in compression. The diagonal cut is characteristic of masonry when the earth suddenly moves sideways but the inertia of the structure has no "give" to react. This causes the upper parts of the structure to slide over lower ones, and the shearing force eventually cuts a crack at this interface. Repeated shaking of the earth back and forth opens up the diagonal crack in both directions, somewhat like an X and the structure eventually crumbles. 

An example of X shaped crack formation can be seen below from another residential building in Kathmandu. The pic was posted by CNN-IBN.

How could masonry structures be improved in developing parts of the world?

This paper published in Future Trends in Structural, Civil, Environmental and Mechanical Engineering, estimated in a lab test that for a mortar thickness of 3/4 inch and shear loading rate of 1/2 ton, an average deformation of 0.140 inch was noticed before the sample failed in shear.  The corresponding shear force was around 14000 lbs and the failure strain was 0.375 inch/inch. Another sample, with only 1/2 inch of mortar in between the bricks showed slightly more deflection but failed at approximately 13000 lbs of shear force at something like 570 inch/inch of strain. In general, the study shows that bricks with higher mortar thickness and higher cement ratios in the mortar show lower tensile stress on loading.

Certainly this sets stage for several questions. Might studies like the above indicate a need to review and control these parameters in masonry? Are more standards required for contractors to meet exacting specifications so structures could be more resilient?  Should renovation of heritage masonry structures be the perfect time to revise the underlying structural makeup?

Indeed it is surprising to learn that the Bhimen Tower is no stranger to earthquakes, having been extensively damaged in an earlier quake and rebuilt in the 1930's. I have no technical details of the structure since the renovation, however one wonders if improved construction practices may have changed the outcome of today?

Interestingly, there's a story of Bristish naturalist Brian Houghton Hodgson, who on horse ride ride with Bhimsen Thapa past a rebuilt 9 story Bhimsen Tower, was to remark on the "necessity of applying either practical knowledge or improved scientific practices in the constructions of this type". I hate to take that out of context but it may offer some clues as to what Hodgson thought of structural practices followed by the Nepalese.

Let me know if you know anything more. Meanwhile I'll update as I see technically relevant things.

Bhimsen Tower after the 1934 Earthquake

View from the 8th floor of the Bhimsen Tower, pic taken by Emily Sharples on Nov 22, 2009

The Tower after the 7.9 magnitude earthquake in Nepal on April 25, 2015. Notice the diagonal cut in the structure roughly 1/8th of the way up from the base.

 Another angle of the destruction, from the Washington Post.  It indicates lot of brickwork in the debris. 

An interesting video shown below is from a 2011 upload by Al-Jazeera, where the Joint Secretary of the Home Ministry is seen decrying the local non-compliance with building codes.