Hacking Bangkok Blog

Tech and Living in Thailand's City of Angels

The Hacking Bangkok blog covers I.T. and technology in general, and my experiences working and living in the Kingdom of Thailand. Bangkok has a very long Thai name, which starts with Krung thep - City of Angels.
Bangkok sunset from my bedroom balcony

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Commercial Fusion Powerplants - Finally Less Than 30 Years Away?

ITER - "Maybe in 2050"

For as long as I can remember (and a lot longer, actually), nuclear fusion as an energy source has been touted as "30 years away" from reality. Other than a very short few weeks twenty years ago, when two scientists (Pons and Fleischmann) announced they they had achieved room-temperature fusion - which turned out to be a dud - fusion for power has been pretty much an R&D effort only.

Heck - instead of getting closer, a working fusion reactor that puts out more power than it uses up has seemed to actually recede into the future; the global consortium of countries that finally decided to build a test reactor is planning to flip the switch on it sometime after 2018. The consortium, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), is building their beast (see the rendering above) in France. Their fast-track plan (meaning, "if all goes well"), would lead to the first commercial fusion plant starting to put out some juice around the year 2050. Yawn!

Full power to lasers, Scotty!
Not that I'm knocking their project - having fusion power in 2050 beats the crap out of "never", but yowza, this project was actually started back in 1985, and they just broke ground last year (in 2008). So I wouldn't hold your breath.

Slightly smaller in scale than ITER's tokamak is America's "National Ignition Facility" (seen posing as a Death Star under construction in photo), a DOE project.

While NIT is more aimed at modeling mini-explosions using boucoup lasers (192 world-beating lasers that all fire simultaneously), they also think they'll beat ITER to the "break-even" punch by years, possibly by 2012. Going from there to a commercial reactor is still a loongggg way, though. Call it 2030 or so.

Enter, private enterprise. Much like SpaceX and Scaled Composites have shaken up the space business, it seems there are a few companies working on commercial fusion power. And I'm not talking about complete frauds, like the infamous "Steorn Energy" (which put an ad in The Economist a few years ago declaring they'd invented a perpetual motion machine...). And some of these companies are raising millions in capital - no mean feat in the teeth of a global recession, if they can pull it off. Others raised millions over the past few years.

Just in the past few weeks, I've read about a few different companies all working on fusion. Helion Energy, which built the plasma fusion prototype shown in the photo at right (photo from Fast Company's website), is looking for $20 million right now. Granted, their prototype looks like it came straight out of Dr. Frankenstein's lab, but if the full-scale model they're hoping to build works, I'm guessing they plan to have something commercial before 2050!! (According to the Fast Company article, they hope to have a commercial plant running by 2022 or so).

Another company is the very secretive Tri Alpha Energy (their site is currently "under construction", although the internet archive shows it from last year with the simple message, "TRI ALPHA ENERGY, Inc. is a company dedicated to energy research". According to Wikepedia, Tri Alpha is working on a type of beam-collision fusion, also referred to in one article as a "plasma electric generator". They raised a cool $40 million in 2007, and haven't uttered a public peep about the fusion research since - although they did announce some sort of solar-powered electric-car charging station last year (so, I really have no idea if they're covering all bets or what?)

There are a few other companies out there - General Fusion and Electron Power Systems - which have also gotten some press. And finally - this year, on the 20th anniversary of the original conference where Pons & Fleischmann made their ill-fated announcement - a scientist at the U.S. Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SPAWAR) announced - wait for it! - that she had, in fact, found strong evidence of cold fusion. Only, she was too clever to call it that - now it's "low energy nuclear reactions", since "cold fusion" has that "oh crap, this is bogus" ring to it.

So - we've got the long, longggg term international effort, the medium-term U.S. national effort, and some scrappy start-ups all either cutting metal, or getting ready to test out hardware. Is fusion's time finally here, or at least less than 30 years away?

I think it is. With global climate change providing part of the impetus, and a finite (if large) amount of oil that has spiked above $100/barrel in the past, there's definitely incentive like never before to pull it off. And I don't think we'll be waiting until 2050, honestly.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

x86 Smartphones - Still Inevitable, and Almost Here!

In a blog-post last November, I wrote about what I think is the inevitability of x86 (or x64) smartphones . I wanted to follow-up on that post with a quick look at what's happened in the five months since, and give a few more reasons why I still think that IA (Intel-architecture) chips will be the brains of most high-end smartphones within five years.

Right now, chips designed to run
ARM's risc-based instruction set (usually just called "ARM" CPUs, even though they're made by a variety of companies) power every high-end smartphone that's in mass production: Apple's iPhone, the HTC Touch and Touch 2 series, Nokia's S60-based assorted models, the about-to-be-released Palm Pre, and the HTC Android handsets (G1 and G2, respectively) all use ARM CPUs. Companies like Marvell and Panasonic make the actual chips themselves. For a time, even Intel licensed ARM, for use in their "StrongARM" processors that powered early Windows Mobile PocketPCs like the Compaq iPaq.

In the past few months, Intel has shown off a prototype smartphone-like device, made by LG, which uses Intel's Moorestown platform. Moorestown (which uses a new "Atom" CPU) is one of many code-names for different chips and chipsets that Intel is working on, a lot of which are targeting the low-power market. While Intel talks a lot about "MIDs" (mobile internet device), these things haven't really taken off, and now Intel has put the circuitry for 3G wireless networks (e.g., cellphone communications) into new low-power system-on-a-chip (SOC) designs. They're showing off Atom processors that can "idle" at 0.65 watts (650 milliwatts), which is still a lot more than an ARM processor, but the next-gen of these chips will (according to Intel) idle at less than 100 milliwatts, which puts them in striking range of ARM chips. According to eWeek , LG will ship an x86 smartphone next year (2010).

So on the one hand, we've got x86 chips from Intel and Via (which makes the low-power-consumption "Nano" cpu) trending to lower and lower power-consumption, and on the other hand, we've got battery technology. Now, I know that batteries have been the dog of tech for a long time - the technological millstone around our mobile gadgets collective necks - but it
is improving. The energy density (measured in Watt-hours per kilogram, or "Wh/Kg") of lithium-ion (Lion) batteries has roughly tripled since 1995. So for a same-weight battery, you get three times more juice. If you look at a graph of the average energy density over time - see the graph on page 4 of "Trends in energy and power supply of mobile phones" (PDF) - it's pretty clear that batteries are following their own very slow version of Moore's law.

There has been a rash of news over the past two or three years about dramatic improvements to the energy density of Lion batteries; most of these have involved changing the makeup of the cathode and anode, or using nanotechnology to change their microscopic "shape". Some of these improvements really qualify as breakthroughs - we're talking three to ten times the current energy density. It looks like lion batteries will, in about five years time, store at least triple the power they do now, and maybe a lot more.

And what's the biggest single advantage of the ARM chips used now? They're power-sippers, using half or less, of the power of even Intel's Moorestown CPU (which isn't even out yet). And the companies that make ARM chips will no doubt try to improve their performance. But we're rapidly approaching the point where a battery the same size as the ones used in smartphones today, will power an x86-based smartphone for just as long as they power ARM chips today, and maybe
close to as long as the ARM chips they'll be competing with. Let's call it 2013 or so. So, what will be the advantage, then, of the x86 smartphone? Some of these I talked about in my other post - things like using existing device-drivers, not needing to re-compile existing desktop software, and the massive base of software developers who write apps for PCs, Macs, and the most popular Linux hardware (which is x86). When x86 is knocking on your market-segment, history has shown that "close" is "close enough".

Another advantage will come from what I think might be a new popular form-factor for computers: I think we'll start to see modular computers, where the CPU and a touch-screen (along with a few tens of GB of storage) are in your smartphone, and then you'll just pop that into a "docking bay" that has a full-sized keyboard, and a 15" monitor along with a bunch more storage (say, a TB or so), which you'll use as a laptop when you want that form factor. The GPU in the smartphone will probably be powerful enough for playing back HD movies, but for gaming, maybe your docking station has a discrete graphics card and another multi-core CPU to beef it up.

In other words - I think it's at least possible (not sure how probable!) that our mobile phones are going to become our computers, and that keyboards, screens, storage and 3D-graphics processing all become periphals. You won't need to "sync" your phone to your PC anymore, because your phone will be the PC. Plug it into your TV's HDMI port to watch movies you've downloaded, or even better, stream them via Bluetooth 3 (assuming you have some Bluetooth-to-HDMI plugged into your TV). If you're on a plane, or waiting in line at the post office (because some things never change), you can watch the same movie on the 3.5" touchscreen. Whatever OS you're running, my guess is it will have two totally different UI "modes", a mobile-centric one, and a "laptop" centric one. So when you're using it as a notebook, you can run Windows 8 (coming in 2012) or your favorite Mac OSX or Linux distro, and when you're out and about, you'll use something more like Android's UI.

Not everything I predicted is going to come to pass exactly like I've laid out here (how I wish I were that good!), but the overall trends of x86 chips needing ever less power, and batteries providing ever more power, are going to eventually mean we're all carrying around Intel or AMD computers and calling them "phones".

*Note - image via Flikr, taken at Intel's developer forum in 2008. My guess is, most of the developers are guys, based on what's on the screen!

Bar Camp Bangkok Returns: BarCamp Bangkok 3 (Rise of the Geeks!)

For anyone who read the first few posts in this blog last year, you might remember that in August I wrote about the first BarCamp Bangkok. It was a two-day event, held on the (beautiful) campus of Chulalongkorn University. I actually posted a second blog entry from my phone, via email, where I gave a mini-wrap-up of my experiences on day one.

BarCamp is actually a user-generated content symposium, not a camp to learn how to make drinks, despite the name! Many of the people who show up come with a prepared presentation on their favorite I.T.-related topic, and at the beginning of the day, they post their topic on a wall. The topics with the most votes are get a room to present. There were upwards of eight or ten presentations going simultaneously last year, which sometimes meant choosing between hearing Google's team discuss Google Apps, or sitting in on the "How to date Japanese Girls - Tips from a Japanese Girl" (which was insanely popular with the Thai guys, natch!)

Oh - for anyone wondering about BarCamp 2, that was held in Vietnam. I would loved to have gone; Franz Nitz, the friend I went to BarCamp at Chula with, did go to the one in Vietnam - I'll have to find out from him how it stacked up! Since he has a Google news-alert set up on his name, I'm betting he'll find this post, and let me know ;-)

BarCamp Bangkok 3 (hit the link for the official site) will be held on May 23-24, 2009 at Sripatum University. The Sripatum website does have a map, but the entire site is in Thai (and completely in Flash), so I'm posting a Google Map of the location here:

View Larger Map

Or just view the map in another tab/browser.

I'm definitely planning on going again, this time for both days. A friend from the U.S. (but who is actually German) is hopefully visiting during that time, and since he's in I.T. also, we'll hopefully both go, and report back here on how it goes. Last year there were great presentations from both big shops, like Google and Mozilla (where I got a great Firefox sticker for my ThinkPad), as well as smaller companies and individuals. Even Franz gave a presentation on creating an Agoda affiliate website (which I'm betting he'll do again this year!)

Anyone else planning on attending? Leave a comment below if you've got a great topic to present, or a topic you're hoping to see.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Maybe There Is A God - Terminator 4 Is Almost Here

This is a (somewhat blurry) pic of a 'Terminator 4: Salvation' display in front of the entrance to a theater I go to near my condo. I was really doubtful about another installment of the Terminator franchise after the mess of 'Rise of the Machines', but when I heard Christian Bale was playing John Connor, I suspended my doubts.

I'm sending this blog post out from my trusty Touch Diamond, which has served pretty well over the past 10 months. Still, I'm betting this will be a big year for android (and possibly the first viable x86 smartphone, given that "Moorestown"-based LG prototype Intel has been showing around).