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Stateside with Rosalea: Dinosaur Botty Coughs

Lately I've been wondering if I can get mates rates at the cryogenics lab downstairs in the building where I work. Man, I'd love to be around in 70 years' time to read the history books. Will 12.30pm, Friday 25 May 2001 be there? That's the time and date the first power raid siren will sound out over the Berkeley campus of the University of California. Every Friday from then on the siren will sound to check that it's working properly in case a state of emergency has to be declared on the campus because of a power failure.

The power raid itself happened back in February when Enron - a Texas-based energy corporation - wriggled out of a 4-year contract it signed with the University of California in 1998 guaranteeing to supply direct energy service to California's public universities at 5 percent less than the state's price cap. A federal appeals court has granted Enron Corp. a reprieve from a recent injunction that it restore direct electric service, and the arguments before the appellates panel over whether Enron broke its contractual agreement are expected to continue through the summer.

In the meantime the University of California's many campuses have to rely on the uncertain supplies that Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison can provide. Berkeley has its own co-generation plant but will not be exempted from rolling blackouts. With the kind of research facilities and laboratories that exist on the campus this is a very serious situation indeed. Off-campus sites have already had to deal with it because they weren't protected from the rolling blackouts over winter, and from what I've been told by those who've had to do it, it is not simply a matter of turning the computer back on when the power comes back. A half-hour break in power supply can set research back for months.

Completely coincidentally - but mentioned here in an effort to put this 'war', as the California Governor calls the power situation, into context - also in February a company based in California's Silicon Valley entered into a definitive agreement to acquire a Texas-based company that specializes in the research and development of thermoelectric devices. Don't roll your eyes! The science is simple - when you hear talk of megawatts you're hearing talk about 'the rate at which electrical energy is converted into heat'. That's the textbook definition of electric power.

Energy good. Heat bad. Especially inside computing and communications devices. But there is a wonderful substance here on dear old planet earth that can ease the limitations currently placed on vital specifications such as data transfer rates. They are called clathrates, and they have cage-like crystal structures in which the spaces are filled with atoms that can effectively rattle around. According to an article in 'American Scientist', this motion "interferes with the conduction of heat but not electricity, making them ideal candidates for the next generation of thermoelectrics."

Lucky old earthlings, we are blessed with ginormous quantities of clathrates because they are a crystalline form of the most abundant substance on earth. Water. And that's only the half of it. Wouldn't you just know that the atoms rattling around inside their water cages represent more hydrocarbons than from all other sources on the planet? Since you find natural gas hydrates only in the permafrost and in shallow marine sediments I like to think of them as the gassy effusions of the dinosaurs. (But that's just because someone here asked me in all seriousness once if the methane exuded by 33 million sheep was indeed harnessed to provide electric power in New Zealand.)

Boring for old farts is obviously going to be somewhat problematical. Firstly, where is the permafrost? Dang me, if it's not in Alaska. And what sort of drilling gear would you use? Probably lasers. Dang me again, wasn't there some space-based laser defence thingy happening a while back? Oh, did I mention the other major area of permafrost? Siberia. Perhaps Mr Tito wasn't the only person being taken for a ride on the space station. Then there's the other two major sources of clathrates - the ocean bed and Mars, both of which are the object of large research initiatives.

When Governor Gray spits tacks about the price-gouging "Texas wildcatters" who are "shooting fish in a barrel" when it comes to "ripping the guts out" of what he calls "America's premier economy" he ain't just talking about gas and electricity.

Immediately following snippets of an exclusive one-on-one interview with the Governor early this week by Fox's energy/consumer reporter, Tom Vacar, another reporter did a story about drilling for natural gas in Northern California. The company involved - run by former roustabouts - will recoup in just 30 days the $4 million cost of tapping a natural gas field there. If it weren't for the five-month waiting list for drilling rigs, they'd be putting down new taps daily. But those sums are chicken chaff compared with what's at stake in the long-term. The real long term. Not the one in the Bush energy plan, which has predictably got the everyone here in California in a flap about how it's not addressing the short-term.

Like all wars, this one between the federal government and the state of California is about resources, and it's about which companies and institutions in which part of the nation will get rich doing the research and development of a natural resource that in 70 years will be the most important one on earth. Not only are clathrates a source of hydrocarbons and potentially able to allow the creation of solid state refrigerators and air-conditioning, but they can be used in the fabrication of ferro electric films, for which researchers see huge opportunities in the biomedical and biotechnical fields.

Well, dang me if I didn't nearly fall for the media hype that it's about politics.

Lea Barker
Saturday 19 May 2001

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