Author Archives: stewart henderson

About stewart henderson

Stewart, aka Luigi Funesti Sordido of the USSR, the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics. A dilettante, basically.

graphene aluminium ion batteries – the big breakthrough?

GMG's coin battery unveiled

GMG’s coin battery unveiled

So I’ve heard more exciting info recently from the Skeptics Guide to the Universe (SGU), this time returning me to Australia – Queensland more specifically. And some are describing this as the big battery technology breakthrough many of us have been waiting and hoping for.

So, lithium-ion batteries go back to the late sixties, though we can go back further to the twenties when it was noted that lithium’s electrochemical properties, such as low density, high specific capacity and low redox potential, would make it a likely battery anode material. I’m tempted to go into a thorough self-education investigation of how li-ion batteries were developed and how they work, but I’ll resist it and go straight to the new tech.

Graphene is an allotrope, or form, of carbon, as is diamond and various fullerenes. It consists of a single layer of atoms in a hexagonal lattice. Graphite, a very stable carbon allotrope, consists of stacked layers of graphene. The clean technology company Graphene Manufacturing Group (GMG), based in Queensland, manufactures graphene via a ‘proprietary production process’ which utilises natural gas (methane) rather than graphite. Its current principal focus, according to its website, is ‘developing applications for energy saving and energy storage solutions’. In its corporate overview, here’s what the company has to say on the battery front:

In the energy storage segment GMG and the University of Queensland are working collaboratively with financial support from the Australian Government to progress research and development, and ultimately explore the commercialization of GMG graphene aluminium-ion batteries. Aluminium-ion batteries have the potential to have better energy density than lithium-ion batteries. Graphene Aluminium-ion batteries may eliminate many disadvantages of LI Batteries, including the risk of overheating/fire and performance degradation. Management believes that successful commercialization of the Graphene Aluminium-ion batteries would result in a superior substitute to LI Batteries in targeted applications.

At this point they are promising longer battery life – up to 3 times – and very much faster charging – up to 60 times, something like a supercapacitor. There are no problems with overheating – lithium requires a cooling system, using more space and energy. They also describe the battery as ‘planet-friendly’, in that it doesn’t require scarce resources, such as lithium, which has become much more expensive recently. In fact, Australia is the world’s largest producer of bauxite ore, from which aluminium and gallium are extracted, so these batteries could put Australia in the box seat for production and manufacture. A ‘secure and simplified supply chain’ is one of the benefits touted by the company. Other benefits include safety (no catching fire), stability (no spontaneous discharge, i.e. energy leakage), and improved energy and power density. The batteries will have a longer lifespan, with many charge-discharge cycles. And at the end of the day they should be more recyclable. GMG also promises that these new batteries can be fitted within existing battery housing – no modifications required.

So how does the battery work? Here’s where I have to learn stuff. These are a class of rechargeable battery in which aluminium ions flow from the anode (the positive electrode) to the cathode and back. As to the cathode, I think that’s where graphene comes in. Based on breakthrough technology developed at the University of Queensland’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, the battery cells ‘use nanotechnology to insert aluminium atoms inside tiny perforations in graphene planes’. Aluminium ions are trivalent, meaning they have three valent, or ‘free’, electrons to play with, compared to lithium’s one. This has had both benefits and disadvantages in the past. The three units of charge per ion means more energy density or storage capacity, but, according to Wikipedia, ‘the electrostatic intercalation of the host materials with a trivalent cation is too strong for well-defined electrochemical behaviour’. I don’t know what this means, but presumably this is the problem that the use of graphene solves.

Whether these new batteries will effectively replace li-ion batteries is a question. Established industries don’t move aside easily, and it’s likely that the new technology will be better for some applications than for others. Li-ion is not only well established, the technology is constantly improving. And nickel metal hydride, the previous form of rechargeable battery, still has its place, I believe.

Things are apparently moving fast. GMG CEO and Managing Director Craig Nicol said, “We are currently looking to bring coin cell commercial prototypes for customer testing in 6 months and a pouch pack commercial prototype – used in mobile phones, laptops etc. – for customer testing in 18 months. We are really excited about bringing this to market. We aim to have a viable graphene and coin cell battery production facility project after customer validation that we would likely build here in Australia”. According to the SGU the company expects to have EV batteries ready by 2024.

So that’s about it. But here’s some other random but relevant info:

Since 2005, lithium costs have increased nine-fold, while aluminium costs have increased by 20%.

Currently 90% of lithium is accessed from China, 10% from Chile – but I heard on Fully Charged that Australia is a major source of lithium, so I’m confused.

Basic ingredients of the new battery: ‘aluminum foil, aluminum chloride (the precursor to aluminium and it can be recycled), ionic liquid and urea’ (Craig Nicol)

From graphene-info.com: Now, GMG has shared the initial performance data when tested in coin cells for the patent-pending surface perforation of graphene in aluminium-ion batteries developed by the Company and the University of Queensland (“UQ”). Currently, GMG Graphene is producing coin cell prototypes for customer testing in Q4 2021.’

From Dr. Ashok Nanjundan, GMG’s Chief Scientific Officer: “This is a real game-changing technology which can offer a real alternative with an interchangeable battery technology for the existing lithium-ion batteries in almost every application with GMG’s Graphene and UQ’s patent-pending aluminium ion battery technology. The current nominal voltage of our batteries is 1.7 volts, and work is being carried out to increase the voltage to directly replace existing batteries and which lead to higher energy densities….. The real differentiator about these batteries is their very high power density of up to 7000 watts/kg, which endows them with a very high charge rate. Furthermore, graphene aluminium-ion batteries provide major benefits in terms of longer battery life (over 2000 charge / discharge cycles testing so far with no deterioration in performance), battery safety (very low fire potential) and lower environmental impact (more recyclable)”.

So, I’ll be following developments over the next few months and years…

References and links

https://www.graphene-info.com

https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeltaylor/2021/05/13/ev-range-breakthrough-as-new-aluminum-ion-battery-charges-60-times-faster-than-lithium-ion/?sh=3be2b61a6d28

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aluminium-ion_battery

flying close to the sun

solar wind and our magnetic shield-field – so much more to learn

I’m not a physicist, or anything else scientific, I’m just an ageing sponge, trying to suck up knowledge and understandings in the diminishing time I have left. Physics is just one vast web of knowledge that I’ve barely stepped upon, to mix metaphors, but that won’t stop me trying to make some sense of orbital mechanics in this post, with the help of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (episode 826), and other sources.

The NASA Parker Solar Probe (PSB) is the fastest human-built object, and also holds the record for closeness to the sun. It was launched in August 2018 and weighs around 73 kgs. Named for Eugene Parker – a multi-award-winning solar astrophysicist who worked out the effects of the solar wind and predicted the spiral shape of the solar magnetic field in the outer solar system – the PSB recently (only a month ago) got to within about ten million kilometres of the sun’s service. The next closest artificial object was the Helios spacecraft, in 1976, at a distance of about 43 million kms. Mercury, which has a highly elliptical orbit, only gets as close as 47 million kms at perihelion.

The PSB is part of NASA’s Living With a Star (LWS) program, which investigates the Sun-Earth system as it affects our sun-dependent and sometimes sun-threatened lives. For example, the SGU references the Carrington Event, the largest geomagnetic storm on record, caused by a solar coronal mass ejection hitting the Earth’s magnetosphere in early September 1859. If such an event occurred today, it would cause massive damage to our electrical grid systems and satellites. So the PSB is designed to study the sun’s corona and solar wind, presumably in the hope of providing an early warning of future events. For this purpose it’s loaded with various forms of detecting and measuring instruments. However, my interest here is in trying to understand how the probe gets from Earth to the Sun’s corona, how it’s expected to reach speeds of up to 690,000 km/h, and how it can withstand the temperatures in the corona.

It has apparently been calculated that it takes 55 times the energy to get to the Sun as it takes to get to Mars. This is all about orbital mechanics – the sun is spectacularly massive, making up 99.8% of the mass of the solar system. That means it also has a spectacularly massive gravitational pull on the Earth, and all other orbiting bodies. It’s the Earth’s ‘sideways’ velocity (107,208 km/h) that keeps it from falling into the sun. So the Earth’s orbital velocity needs to be taken into account – cancelled out – in planning a trip to the Sun. It turns out that it’s inordinately difficult to do so. With current technology they have only managed to cancel out about 80% of this velocity – which will bring the PSB close to the Sun but not close enough. Travelling to the outer planets is much easier. The probe would leave Earth at 40,000 km/h (escape velocity) and would require a relatively slight boost (6-7,000 km/h) to reach Mars, and further small boosts to reach the other outer planets.

The solution to this cancellation problem is to employ an orbital manipulation called Venus Earth Gravity Assist (VEGA). The PSB was sent to Venus to reduce the sideways orbital motion. Every swing around Venus further reduces this motion, and allows the PSB to decrease the orbital perihelion ultimately to about 7 million kms, at which time it will be travelling at its maximum speed. This will occur at Christmas Eve 2024 (they can be quite precise, apparently), after the last of its planned seven swings around Venus. The probe’s orbit around the Sun will be highly elliptical, with a minimum of time spent around perihelion, to prevent radiation damage to the craft and instrumentation. 

Of course the PSB will also come equipped with probably the most sophisticated heat shield or thermal protection system ever built, which will protect it not only from the intense heat and radiation but from high-velocity dust particles. It measures about 2.5 metres in diameter and is made from carbon foam between layers of superheated carbon-carbon composite, aka reinforced carbon-carbon (carbon fibre in a matrix of graphite). Its outer aluminium oxide coating is, naturally, reflective white, to protect probe and equipment from a maximum temperature at perihelion of about 1370 degrees celsius. NASA expects that the inner side of the shield will be at a little under 30 degrees – so cool in fact that some instruments will be independently heated to operate at maximum efficiency. The probe has been created to be as autonomous as possible, given its distance from Earth. For example, if instrumentation somehow becomes exposed to radiation, four light sensors will ‘detect the first traces of direct sunlight coming from the shield limits and [engage] movements from reaction wheels to reposition the spacecraft within the shadow again’, to quote the Wikipedia article on the probe. 

This solar probe concept was first mooted in the late 1950s but was regularly postponed due to costs. The initial idea was for a less direct route using a gravity assist from Jupiter, which would have created a longer and more expensive mission and would have required a nuclear battery called a radioisotope thermal generator. Something to research in another post maybe. 

So I won’t pretend that I understand all the mathematics of this probe’s voyage, but I do know that it has been successful so far, at least in terms of its travel – the Venus assists and the solar orbits, which will all come to an end on August 29 2025. As to whether it will be successful in its research tasks, that will have to be evaluated over time. What precisely are those research tasks? There are three main ones: to trace the flow of energy that heats the corona and accelerates the solar wind, to determine the structure and dynamics of the magnetic fields that create the solar wind, and to determine what mechanisms accelerate and transport energetic particles.

Whether the knowledge gained will protect us from future solar wind and electromagnetic activity nobody knows. Predictions about the future are probably the most uncertain predictions of all. 

References

Episode #826

https://science.nasa.gov/heliophysics/programs/living-with-a-star

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parker_Solar_Probe

https://www.cosmos.esa.int/documents/1700208/1718748/06+Luhmann+Living+with+the+Sun.pdf/337d8891-ba5f-6534-42ea-92eff2131797

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrington_Event

https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2018/its-surprisingly-hard-to-go-to-the-sun

Water as a solvent

Not actually universal

Thinking of solutions often makes me think of water. I’m fascinated by water’s multiple uses in our world. As a cleaning agent, for example. What does it mean, that water cleans things? Well, take the case of dirty dishes. You’ve got some dinner dishes, with small scraps of meat, vegetables, some sauce, some cake crumbs, etc. They’ve been left on the sideboard for a few hours, so that the food scraps have dried out and are stuck to the dishes. Put these few plates, bowls, forks, knives and spoons in a basin of warm water for, say, twenty minutes. You will find that, with a minimal quantity of cleaning agents added – soap is perfectly adequate – you’ll be able to remove all the crumbs and bits of sauce from the plates and utensils easily with your hands. I find hands really great for cleaning, you can feel every lump and bump.

So what’s happening here? Certain chemical processes have occurred. First, The material on the crockery has dried out, over a period of hours. That means it has lost water to the surrounding air. Evaporation of water can occur at any temperature, as the surface water molecules have a higher kinetic energy, explained apparently by the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution, which I won’t go into here.

So when the dirty dishes are placed in water, reactions occur. Stuff dissolves in water. This is because H₂O is a polar molecule – its oxygen head is electronegative and its two hydrogen tails are electropositive. That’s because the oxygen pulls the electrons it shares with the hydrogen – called covalent bonding – closer to itself, giving it a slightly negative charge, and the hydrogens a slightly positive charge. This polarity attracts water molecules to each other. So if there are any water molecules left on the dirty dishes, and there will be, the basin water will be attracted to them, so softening and breaking up the food particles. And if there is salt in the sauce and sugar in the cake, these will dissolve in the water, because the polar bonds in H₂O are stronger than the ionic bonds in salt (NaCl), so breaking them down, and H₂O will connect with the polar O-H bonds in sucrose (C12H22O11).

I’ve mentioned two other useful factors for cleaning – heat and soap. Any unfortunate who sugars their coffee will know how effective heat is for dissolving their poison. This is simply to do with the energy state of the water molecules. The excited molecules interact more rapidly with the sugar, or salt, causing their rapid dissolution. Soap, and other detergents, act as cleansing agents for a very different reason.

Some substances, particularly hydrocarbons, such as hexane (C₆H₁₄), found in petrol and many glues, are insoluble in water. In our example, think of cooking oil and fats. Greasy stuff. Soap is made up of molecules called surfactants. These lengthy molecules have a water-loving (hydrophilic) head and a grease-loving (hydrophobic) tail, so to speak. Here’s a neat summary of what happens, from Science on the shelves, a website of the University of York:

The head of the molecule is attracted to water (hydrophilic) and the tail is attracted to grease and dirt (hydrophobic). When the detergent molecules meet grease on clothes [or dishes], the tails are drawn into the grease but the heads still sit in the water. The attractive forces between the head groups and the water are so strong that the grease is lifted away from the surface. The blob of grease is now completely surrounded by detergent molecules and is broken into smaller pieces which are washed away by the water.

More detail can be gone into here, but this is a start. The fact that water is such an effective solvent has so many implications for all living organisms it’s hard to know what to turn to next, so I’ll have to give it a think.

I should point out that in researching this piece, which certainly wasn’t hard work, I found at least a dozen good videos describing water as a solvent, and there were countless other videos describing other properties of water. I’m very grateful to be living in the internet age, when so much of this thought-provoking material is so readily available.

some references

https://www.middleschoolchemistry.com/lessonplans/chapter5/lesson4

https://www.usgs.gov/media/images/water-molecules-and-their-interaction-salt-molecules

https://www.york.ac.uk/res/sots/activities/soapysci.htm

Water as a solvent | Water, acids, and bases | Biology | Khan Academy (video)

Properties of Water (video – Amoeba Sisters

solutions to current political dogma 3 – Taiwan

We’re literally the first generation that can actually do democracy because it was illegal in our parents’ age. Because of that, there’s a lot more room to innovate.

Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s Digital Minister

inside Taiwan’s Social Innovation Lab

Taiwan is a nation with a complex recent history and an uncertain future, faced as it is with an aggressive and extremely powerful neighbour which utterly rejects its claim to independence. But while this future largely depends on the winds, or whims, of international support for its fledgling democracy, it is making progress on its own with new approaches to participatory decision-making, using crowd-sourcing and other digital methods.

These new approaches had their foundation in 2014, when a mass protest movement, called the Sunflower Movement, sprang up in opposition to an attempt by then President Ma Ying-jeou, of the governing Kuomintang, to create a trade deal with China, called the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) – clearly a highly sensitive issue, especially for Taiwan’s youth. The demonstrations – effectively opposing the one China policy in general – were massive, involving half a million people out of a population almost equal to that of Australia, but they were also ‘smart’, as they involved the use of smart phones to communicate and organise effectively.

The success of the Sunflower Movement led eventually to a change of government – the Kuomintang, which had democratised since the 1990s but which had long been tainted with neofascism, was finally ousted in 2016, and a centre-left government, the Democratic People’s Party (DPP), was installed, and returned with an increased majority in 2020. But a perhaps a more interesting outcome of the movement was the development of online participatory democracy platforms such as vTaiwan. The DPP has embraced digital technology to the point of creating a Digital Minister, Audrey Tang, a heroine to a diversity of communities.

Participatory or open democracy is an attempt to flatten hierarchies by creating online spaces for citizen deliberation and more open access to elected representatives. The emphasis is on diversity, and ‘forking the government’, a joke term of sorts, which Jess Scully explains:

In programming, forking means creating alternative approaches to a subset of a program (that is, writing some new code) and testing those in parallel with the status quo. Once the alternative code is working well, it’s merged into the system permanently.

J Scully, Glimpses of utopia, p 60

As Tang explains, forking, in the strictly digital sense, has become a more flexible process in recent years, and this can be seen as a metaphor for governance. She sees her department as horizontal, and set within a broader government system that is as horizontally organised as practicable. Other terms such as sandboxing, are taken from the new tech world to describe experimental processes contained in lower-risk spaces such as the nation’s Social Innovation Lab before unleashing them on an unsuspecting public. These processes encourage the testing and tweaking of a diversity of inputs and responses to proposals from within or outside government, and clearly vTaiwan, the online platform, plays a key role. Government bureaucrats are encouraged to be proactive in formulating ideas and expected to be accountable in providing feedback to others. Accountability and reward go together.

It all sounds very idealistic, and there have certainly been roadblocks – such as getting government reps to take the issues discussed seriously – but vTaiwan and other such open-source platforms have allowed dissenters to articulate their grievances, and more importantly, to suggest solutions. Demonstrations can give way to consultations and collaboration. One key innovation in this consultative process is that no comments are permitted on proposals, thus eliminating divisiveness and trolling. Instead, proposals are upvoted or downvoted, so that maps of consensus can quickly emerge. Also, some proposals garner more attention for or against than others and so can be seen as focusing on issues of greatest public concern.

An even more successful platform, endorsed and utilised by Tang, is Join, created by the National Development Council, another government initiative. Often debate and contributions on these platforms lead to a complete reformulation of the original issue with innovative and wide-ranging solutions.

Taiwan’s outstanding performance in combatting Covid-19 has naturally made the country a focus of international interest. In an article written last December, ‘Digital participation in Taiwan: takeaways for Europe’, Dominik Hierlemann and Stefan Roch described the country’s success:

Taiwan’s open and vibrant social media called the “PTT bulletin board” was able to pick up the news and evidence of a new and dangerous virus in Wuhan as early as December 2019 and directed the information effectively to Taiwan’s Centre for Disease Control. Based on that information, the centre started to check all incoming flights from Wuhan and created a collective information system for all citizens, as well as with the help of citizens. As Taiwan immediately started rationing masks, an interactive App was quickly developed that helps people track down pharmacies that have masks on stock, so that the entire population could be effectively supplied. To this day, the Centre of Disease Control holds daily public briefings based on information collaboratively collected by itself, experts and citizens.

As Audrey Tang points out, Taiwan has more social media accounts than it has citizens, and it treats cheap broadband access as essentially a human right. With encouragement from one of the world’s most tech-savvy governments, the population is digitally interconnected like no other. And the Social Innovation Lab, based in Taipei, has a drop-in centre, open 16 hours a day, for people to meet, talk and eat in a relaxed atmosphere, exchanging ideas and plans informally and face-to-face. It all seems to be working, and more and more people worldwide are taking an interest.

References

Jess Scully, Glimpses of Utopia, 2020

https://www.technologyreview.com/2018/08/21/240284/the-simple-but-ingenious-system-taiwan-uses-to-crowdsource-its-laws/

https://www.ndc.gov.tw/en/

D Hierlemann & S Roch, ‘Digital participation in Taiwan: takeaways for Europe’, Dec 1 2020

solutions to current political dogma 2 – Iceland

Katrin Jacobsdottir, of the Left-Green Movement, Prime Minister of Iceland since December 2017

So there are problems with modern democracy, especially for those governmental systems that have congealed into a two-party race to be top dog for the next election cycle, with each new winning party tending to dismantle the policies of the previous government. There are also major problems of money in politics, especially in those nations, like the US, in which the rich-poor divide is problematic and worsening.

Of course these problems pale into insignificance as we witness the attempt to snuff out democracy altogether in Miyanmar. The democratic world watches this as if helpless, as if the matter shouldn’t be dealt with urgently and internationally. The only country that seems to want to do anything about the situation is China – to lend a hand with the butchery, in order to protect its business interests there. We need to strengthen international forces against those who ride roughshod over human rights in such a flagrant, corrupt and arrogant way.

After that venting of spleen I’ll return to the comfort of our lucky country and those like it. The fact is that these modern democracies and capitalist nations have a dynamism that traditional governing systems, laws and work practices are unable to keep up with, and the increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of financial elites is leaving behind a demoralised sector of society, formerly known as the working class. Traditional jobs are gone or transformed, leaving many feeling outcast, bewildered and defeated. But of course many of the young, or young-at-heart, in this sector have ideas and energy to spare, and are seeking a like-minded community.

The examples of participatory democracy and community action that follow have been introduced to me by Jess Scully in her book Glimpses of utopia: real ideas for a fairer world, and I will do my own research to follow up areas of interest and new developments.

  1. Iceland

As a person not well-versed in global finance, I always wondered how a failure of regulation in the US banking system led to a global financial crisis, where national governments felt obliged to bail out banks outside of the USA. The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) has an explainer on this, citing ‘linkages in the global financial system’, which I kind of guessed. But does the financial system have to be linked up in this way, and what if a particular government refused to bail out their nation’s banks?

The RBA mentions Iceland as one of many countries in which excessive lending, encouraged and facilitated by banks, was happening in the pre-GFC boom years. All of this was a result of lack of foresight (booms are always followed by busts), greed (the loans were sold on to investors as ‘mortgage-backed securities’ (MBS) which became increasingly opaque and complex) and corruption (due to lack of regulation, fraud in the form of overstating borrowers’ income and lying about the safety and value of MBS products). The international linkages included the facts that the housing boom was more or less worldwide, that US banks had an international presence, and that foreign banks were large-scale investors in MBS and other higher-return products.

So it’s likely that the major problem here was and is lack of regulation and independent oversight. I might go into the Australian situation in another post, but the situation of Iceland is unusual because the GFC led to a massive re-evaluation of its political and economic structure.

Iceland’s banks were deregulated in the early 2000s, and in the following years, its banking system went more than a bit crazy, creating paper billionnaires almost overnight. Clearly the dodgy deals were more flagrant than elsewhere, and when the crash came, many bank CEOs and some government officials were tried and jailed. But there was no bail-out. As Gudrun Johnsen, a member of the special commission set up to learn from the collapse, put it, ‘The banks were 10 times the GDP of Iceland; 20 times the state budget. They were too big to bail out’.

What did occur was a change of government, a rewriting of the Icelandic constitution, and an unprecedented period of financial and political reform, set off by the Pots and Pans Revolution. Much of this involved participatory democracy, including online crowdsourcing (in the case of creating a new constitution), the building of an online platform, Better Reykjavik, later rebranded as Better Neighbourhoods, and the encouraging of ideas and systems transcending political duopolies. All of this was quite unusual in Iceland, a nation not given to revolutionary activity, and it has only been partially successful. In 2013 a more conservative government was returned, but the political landscape has been altered, and political sensitivities have heightened. These comments from two analysts after the 2013 elections give a sense of the new situation:

While the grassroots movement that overthrew the government after the crash remains disillusioned and disappointed, its impact should not be under-estimated. One important development in its wake, and an important emerging theme for further research, is a series of experiments with direct democracy and social media. Soon after the crash, a crowd-sourcing company drew upon social media to prepare for a National Meeting (Þjóðfundur) of 1,000 participants for outlining a new constitution. While the end result of this work remains unclear, and much depends on the formal, indirect democracy of the Parliament, it seems safe to say that the public has been sensitized to new avenues for democracy and alerted to potential signs of corruption.

It may not seem like much, but the protests and what followed from them were something of a revelation for Icelanders – apparently the biggest show of public dissatisfaction with its leaders in a thousand years, together with positive, participatory action to improve the political and social situation there, using new technologies and social media. As we all know, social media is very much a double-edged sword, but it is here to stay (until something else comes up), and we can’t really afford to ignore it.

Next I will look at how Taiwan is dealing with its new democratic freedoms.

References

https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Myanmar-Coup/Myanmar-coup-Week-from-Feb.-20-to-March-18-UN-team-urges-whistleblowers-to-report-illegal-orders

https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Myanmar-Coup/Myanmar-crisis-drags-China-into-chaos-after-factories-torched

https://www.rba.gov.au/education/resources/explainers/the-global-financial-crisis.html

https://www.bbc.com/news/business-35485876

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_Icelandic_financial_crisis_protests

Jess Scully, Glimpses of utopia: real ideas for a fairer world.

solutions to current political dogma 1: the problem

the tedium of it all

Back in 2012, Joe Hockey, later to become Australia’s Treasurer, delivered a controversial speech to the conservative think tank, the Institute for Economic Affairs, in London. The speech, titled ‘the End of the Age of Entitlement’, was delivered as the world was still suffering from the after-effects of the global financial crisis caused by the bail-out of rogue, aka deregulated, financial enterprises such as Lehman Brothers, Citibank and Bear Sterns, whose sub-prime mortgage lending practices had become exposed. The bail-out cost the US government hundreds of billions of dollars and affected financial markets worldwide.

The GFC led the Rudd Labor government in Australia to institute a Keynesian stimulus package which averted a recession, and was praised by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz as one of the best-designed of any country (and was attacked relentlessly by the conservative opposition). Other countries chose to, or felt obliged to, follow a similar path, and so many government surpluses became deficits, and those in deficit saw those deficits balloon disturbingly.

Hockey’s speech mentioned the GFC in passing, without commenting on the dodgy banking practices, for which none of the major players were ever held to account. One would think that the term ‘entitlement’ might be applied to these wealthy rogue operators, but Hockey’s target was in fact the welfare system, though the term ‘welfare’ was nowhere mentioned in his speech. It was substituted everywhere by the term ‘entitlements’, a term we would usually associate, naturally enough, with the titled.

Hockey’s argument was that developed economies could no longer afford the generous welfare payments provided by governmental taxes, and that this was proven by increasing deficits in spite of what he would have described as punitive taxation systems in some countries. Unfortunately, Hockey’s speech was short on solutions, at a time of increasing automation and the closing of factories, the casualisation of the workforce and the gig economy, beyond referring to Hong Kong and its apparently supportive and self-sacrificing extended families, as if the developed nations are ever likely to revert to that spread-the-poverty-around model, if it ever really existed (I would recommend reading Rebecca Skloot’s excellent documentary work The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks as an account of the benefits and limitations of extended families in the context of African-American poverty and disadvantage). And of course, Hockey advocates good old hard work which, as well as being its own reward, will inevitably result in a climb up the greasy pole to monetary success. This would have been news to the slaves of the Greeks, Romans and Conquistadors of earlier times, the coal miners and chimney sweeps of Britain and the asbestos factory workers of Australia. Arbeit macht frei indeed.

I could go on about the problems inherent in Hockey’s speech, but I noticed that, in referring to the inevitable right-left swings that democratic elections have devolved into (though these political swings formed the backbone of Livy’s History of Rome, written nearly 2000 years ago), Hockey prefers the terms ‘socialist’ and ‘conservative’, thus, it seems, deliberately emphasising and revelling in the divide. As a person intent on finding solutions, I find this sowing of division unhelpful. The aim here is to recognise problems – of poverty, of energy, of well-being, of health, of the environment we inhabit, and so forth. And I’m not sure if endlessly ‘working’ is the solution, at least in the narrow sense of ‘work’ that Hockey was using.

In fact, considering all these problems we need to solve – and more problems will inevitably arise (life would be pretty boring without problems to solve) – work is not simply a solution, it’s another problem. What constitutes work? Cultivating your garden? Looking after your children? Beautifying your neighbourhood? Attending conferences? Encouraging your students? Having sex with your partner?

All these activities provide value to human social life – and we are the most socially constructed mammals on the planet – in a way that can’t be easily monetised. And it would be silly to do so.

Anyway, all of this is preliminary to looking at solutions to a human world in which so much work is providing entertainment and diversion to our fellow human beings – for what are dining out, attending arts festivals and soccer matches, watching netflix, shopping, searching for extra-terrestrial life, decorating the house, and so forth, but forms of adult play? To which whole industries and technologies are devoted. And I’m not denigrating play – far from it – it marks the difference between life and mere existence. Just ask our dog.

Finally, as a person brought up in a working-class environment (the town of Elizabeth in South Australia, created as a hub around the General Motors Holden factory and ancillary businesses in the late fifties), I experienced life there during the economic downturn of the mid-seventies, when unemployment became a major problem, leading to a palpable sense of demoralisation. Kids like myself, living in the chasm between school and work (of which there was precious little) hung out at shopping centres, smoking and selling dope and trying to act tough. Most of our parents were separated or about to be. The number of dilapidated and derelict homes multiplied almost before our eyes. I got and lost three or four factory jobs, making washing machines, mobile homes and iron tubing. I remember weeping quietly on the six o’clock bus on my way to one of these workplaces. How could I, with a mind the size of a planet, be reduced to this?

At other times, I got dole money, which I recall jumped from $7.50 to $21.50 per week when Whitlam’s labor government came in. Maybe I could use this windfall of filthy lucre to educate myself out of the bind I found myself in? The main point I’m making here is that, as part of a migrant family separated from the extended family 12,000 miles away, with no role models in business, academia or any of the more lucrative professions, and being generally introverted but profoundly anti-authoritarian, I hated ‘working for the man’ but felt I had boundless energy and capacity that I had little idea what to do with. What I lacked was a community of like-minded types. A community of two or three would do.

And that brings me to some of the ideas and practices described in Jess Scully’s Glimpses of utopia. More of that next time.

Reference

Brian Donaghy, Cents and Sensibility, 2014 (see appendix for Joe Hockey’s speech notes)

universal basic income 2: how to finance it





Imagine this highly unlikely scenario. The current conservative Australian government loses the 2022 federal election in a landslide, due to widespread financial corruption, inaction on addressing global warming – brought into relief by another devastating summer in 2020-21- and the rise of a young, charismatic leader of the leftist Labor opposition, who has managed to sell voters on an Aussie version of the Green New Deal, as well an ambitious Basic Income policy.

It’s okay to dream, but we have to get real. How do we make such a policy work?

I will rely on the ideas and calculations of finance journalist and author of A basic income for Australia, Brian Donaghy, for the following. First, based on the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) campaign of March 2020 which advocated a rise in what’s now called Jobseeker to $755.70 per fortnight (of course, the Covid19 pandemic has caused the current government to raise the previous payment, with obvious reluctance, to a figure which is still well below the ACOSS recommendation), together with an increased rent assistance payment of $158 per fortnight, the Basic Income payment should be set at $913.70 per fortnight, for every adult. Children would be given a percentage, depending on age. The total cost of such a package would be about $526 billion per annum. Alternatively, the payment could be set at the aged pension rate, plus supplements – $944 fortnightly – totalling about $544 billion per annum. The OECD takes the poverty line to be about $1000 per fortnight, and Australia’s minimum wage for the 2019-20 year was around $1481 per fortnight.

So, how do we find, let’s say, $544 billion dollars a year to finance this scheme? According to Donaghy’s costings, savings on welfare payments and administration would bring the figure down to about $415 billion. Next, Donaghy looks at ‘individual tax offsets and deductions’, which he claims the government should scrap. I can’t pretend to understand this, but scrapping these perks would, he claims, bring the basic income cost down to $377 billion.

All of this should simplify the tax system, making tax evasion and avoidance more difficult, and increasing revenue to the ATO, though putting a dollar amount on this might be difficult. However, tax avoidance task-forces have been in operation for some years and have collected billions of dollars. Their job would be made easier by a a more simplified system.

Another factor which would increase tax revenue by a hard-to-calculate amount would be the increased spending power created by the basic income. Remember, its universality would provide lower and middle income earners with the opportunity to spend more on dining out, home improvements, internal tourism and the like. Australia’s corporate profits would increase, according to economic modelling, enough to bring the cost of the UBI down to about $282 billion, though Donaghy has chosen to be more conservative, lowering the cost to around $320 billion.

The UBI goes to everyone, so that for many taxpayers it would be additional income at the top marginal rate. Without going into detail, this would bring in further tax revenue, totalling almost $81.7 billion, and bringing the cost of the UBI down to somewhere around $240 billion – with nobody suffering since that extra tax would only be a percentage of the extra income provided to the wealthy.

One could go on tweaking the system and working out theoretical savings, such as a restructuring of the government subsidies paid to particular industries, often described as business or corporate welfare. Australia’s Productivity Commission estimated that government ‘budgetary assistance’ to corporations totalled approximately $12 billion in 2018-19. Arguments as to whether such assistance constitutes sound government investment will run the gamut, and will of course depend on how much potential each corporation has – prediction about the future being particularly tricky. However, as Donaghy points out, modern companies have become increasingly technocratic and international, tending to shed rather than increase workers, and if they need hands-on work, may be able to source it from developing countries with cheap labour rates. Government handouts end up mostly if not entirely at the top end of town. Our federal government apparently subsidises the fossil fuel industry to to the tune of $12 billion annually, always using the ‘jobs jobs jobs’ mantra, but these industries are shedding jobs and are not major employers.

Other ways of tweaking the system include taxing multinational tech companies such as Google, Apple and Facebook – always risky, as they tend to respond with ‘big money muscle’, threatening to limit services. the Goods and Services Tax can also be looked at. Many European nations impose a higher GST on luxury items. Even raising the basic rate by one percent will bring in an extra $7 billion. Since the UBI would lead to greater spending, much of the money raised would be recirculated through the system.

Again I should emphasise that this is a very rough guide, largely based on Brian Donaghy’s rough guide to funding a UBI. However, I’m not optimistic enough to believe that anything like a UBI will operate in Australia in the near future. Meanwhile, with the current jobs crisis and shutdowns caused by the pandemic, the Australian government is operating with an online compliance system for jobseekers which is near-criminal in its stress-inducing incomprehensibility, and touting an increase in jobseeker payments, which, as mentioned, will keep these payments far below any reasonably projected UBI. The current government’s support of those most damaged by the pandemic – for example, those, like myself, who work in the international student sector – has been as minimal as it feels it can get away with. Of course the current government has essentially prided itself on its ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ lack of innovation, so we clearly need to look elsewhere. The 2022 election is one source of hope, but there are other options besides a UBI (and of course there also many options within UBI). In her recent (2020) book, Glimpses of Utopia , Jess Scully, arts entrepreneur, curator and Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney, has promoted the idea of Universal Basic Services as a less ‘libertarian’ and more community-oriented approach to reducing disadvantage and improving inclusivity. I’ll explore this concept further next time.

References

Brian Donaghy, A basic income for Australia, 2020

Jess Scully, Glimpses of utopia, 2020

universal basic income: an introduction

The idea of a universal basic income (UBI) has been floating around for some decades, but the noises have grown louder in recent years, it seems to me, as industry and agriculture have become increasingly mechanised, at least in the developed world. This means, I’d suppose, that those with the capital to harness the technology for profitable ventures would be more able to concentrate the wealth in their hands (and in the hands of venture capitalists who back them) while the less advantaged who’ve previously relied on working for a living are left at a loss, in more ways than one.

Right now I know very little about UBI. How would it be funded, is it applied nation by nation, are there different projected plans available, has it ever been tried anywhere, what are the upsides and downsides, who’s advocating it? And so on. There are probably more questions than answers at the moment, but considering the huge gaps occurring between the rich and the poor in developed countries, and the rise of homelessness often going hand in hand with rises in GDP, this kind of apparently simplified safety net is surely at least worth a look.

First, without doing any research, I assume that ‘universal’ really means ‘national’ or ‘state’ – we’re not going to get this organised on a global scale. The second assumption is that such payments would have to come out of the taxation system, as I can’t think of any alternative. This would seem to add up to quite a bill, depending on the amount allocated on a per capita basis. There would also be offsets, such as the elimination of much welfare bureaucracy, which would perhaps throw more people out of work. There are also arguments as to whether this would amount to ‘sit down money’, or would incentivise people to be more active in business and creative fields. 

So do we have any evidence about costs and benefits? Has this approach been trialled anywhere? Well interestingly, a small-scale 3-year trial is being carried out in Fife, Scotland, very close to where I was born in Dundee. Reporting from June 2020 has it that the trial, involving only 17,000 Scots, involves a one year preparation period and an estimated minimum cost of £186m, so it will be a while before we see any results, if indeed the plan goes ahead. There are plenty of naysayers of course.

A more comprehensive test is already under way in Spain, where some 850,000 households have been supported with a ‘guaranteed minimum income’ by the leftist government since June 2020, at an estimated cost of 3 billion euros annually. This isn’t strictly a trial – the government plans to maintain the system indefinitely (meaning probably until a right-wing government takes over), but of course they’ll be monitoring it in terms of reducing poverty and boosting employment, health and other indices.

The current pandemic, unsurprisingly, has brought the UBI and it variants to the forefront once more, but it has been mooted, and tried to varying degrees, in the past. Brian Donaghy, in his booklet on basic income, gives a brief overview of these small-scale trials, in Canada, Switzerland, Finland, Namibia, Kenya and the USA. Unfortunately some of them were torpedoed by political opponents before much meaningful data could be gleaned, but one of the most interesting findings they had in common was an increased sense of good health and well-being felt by recipients. 

The fact is that, over recent decades, the term ‘welfare’ has developed distinctly negative connotations. Making the income truly ‘universal’ within a whole nation or state, rather than targeting those below a certain income level, as is the case in the Spanish trial, is really the only way to remove the idea of ‘welfare’ from these payments. 

Now, in order to understand the financial and taxation implications of a UBI, I need to undertake a steep learning journey. I may also go into some personal revelations to make it clear why these kinds of payments are of particular interest to me. 

So, having read Brian Donaghy’s booklet, A basic income for Australia, I have more questions than answers. Donaghy also makes it clear that convincing politicians of the justice of such a system will be an uphill battle, especially in dual party-style democratic countries, when both sides of the political fence are more dedicated to opposing each other than to working together, which would be essential for such a system to work. 

Despite the naysayers, the UBI and its variants refuses to die, in fact it’s finding more interest now than ever before. In spite of this, it hasn’t really been given a full trial anywhere, and the public as well as politicians are very divided on the subject.

But I need to dive in on how it might work in Australia, relying on Donaghy’s booklet.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistic figures for 2018, average annual full-time adult earnings were fractionally under $90,000 gross – an eye-watering figure to me. Donaghy sets the UBI, for calculation’s sake, at about $24,500 annually – which is approximately that of the current aged pension, and associated supplements. So this income rises to $114,500, with the extra – the UBI (which every adult gets) – being tax free. 

But here’s where Donaghy – who’s an experienced finance journalist – leaves me behind: 

The UBI replaces the existing tax-free allowances but there are no longer individual tax allowances or rebates. 

As a perennially poor person I’ve generally paid too little in tax to worry about such things. So what is a tax-free allowance? My guess is that it includes Jobseeker, AUSTUDY, the aged pension, and such payments as carer’s and disability allowances. His remark about individual allowances covers particular payments that are distinct from these general payments. 

Donaghy then goes into tax rates, which I’ve never had to think about. What I can glean is that we have sliding tax rates, like every other country. According to the Australian Tax Office (ATO) our tax rates for the 2020-21 financial year are: no tax on annual income $18,200 or under; 19% for every dollar over $18,200 up to $45,000 (that’s 19% of $26,800 = $5092). That strikes me as a pretty reasonable tax rate for relatively low income earners. The rate from $45,000 to a whopping $120,000 is 32.5%, which also strikes me as low, though I’m pretty sure that those in this tax bracket, especially at the higher end, are howling about it. The rate goes up to 37% for earnings from $120,000 to $180,000, and then jumps to 45% for each dollar over $180,000.

Donaghy suggests that the Basic Income payment will be at the tax-free threshold, which at the current tax-free rate would be $700 fortnightly – a bit low as the tax free threshold has been lowered recently. I would expect such a payment to be around $900/fortnightly, which would mean, for simplicity’s sake, raising the threshold again. Not difficult, as governments tinker with the threshold regularly.

So, how to massage the tax system to support some kind of Basic Income? I’ll write about that next time.

References

Brian Donaghy, A basic income for Australia, 2020

on dating techniques – not what you think

C-14 dating of a New Zealand Moa – the original pic is interactive

I’m currently reading a Christmas present book, Ancient bones: unearthing the astonishing new story of how we became human , by the German palaeontologist and palaeoclimatologist Madelaine Böhme, co-written with Rudiger Braun and Florian Breier. I’ve become very taken with it, as it’s seriously challenging a hypothesis/theory I thought was now well established, namely the ‘Out of Africa’ hypothesis. But what would I know?

I hope to write about all that elsewhere, but here, in keeping with this blog’s raison d’être, I want to focus on a couple of dating techniques for ancient fossils that have been developed in recent decades, as solutions to the problem of providing the fullest picture of the planet’s living past and its evolution. Böhme’s book gives a brief overview of some of these technologies, and I want to see if I can fully understand them.

I note that the term ‘quaternary geochronology’, which I’ve just discovered, covers dating techniques for the quaternary period – the last 2.6 million years – though Ancient Bones is dealing with proto-humans going back as far as our links with bonobos and chimps, some 7 million years ago. That’s into the late neogene period, geologically speaking.

radiocarbon

First, the most well-known, carbon-14 or radiocarbon dating. Carbon-14 is a rare, weakly radioactive isotope of carbon, first discovered in 1940, containing 8 neutrons instead of the usual 6 (carbon-13, a stable isotope, is much more common, making up 1% of all carbon). Carbon-14 is unstable and decays at a steady rate, hence its value as a tool in archaeology and geology. Böhme et al give a nice account of its use in dating:

Living plants regularly absorb C-14 out of the carbon dioxide in the air when they photosynthesise, and they incorporate it, along with C-12, into their tissues. The relationship between C-14 and C-12 in plants and in the animals that eat them therefore remains constant. After an organism dies, however, a kind of atomic clock begins to run. Because only the amount of C-14 present in the tissues at the time of death remains and no new C-14 is added, the portion of C-14 in the tissues declines at a constant rate through radioactive decay. This process is completely uniform, and it is therefore easy to translate it into time and use it to calculate the age of things.

Ancient Bones, p154

I quoted this at length, as it’s a great explanation for novices. The limitation to this dating technique, though, is the relative rapidity of C-14 decay. It has a half-life of about 5,730 years, meaning that the amount of the C-14 isotope in samples reduces by half in that time. So it is only useful for dating items less than about 50,000 years old.

Radiometric dating, using the decay rates of uranium and thorium, can date fossils and rocks back to half a million years, and other radiometric measurements (uranium-lead and potassium-argon) can take us back further still, but this depends on whether rocks contain the required elements.

magnetostratigraphy

This is a fascinating technique which examines the orientation of magnetic particles in rocks. The Earth’s magnetic field (or geomagnetic field) – which interacts with and protects us from solar wind particles – is always shifting its orientation, and every so often, over millions of years, completely reverses itself (reversal of polarity). So different strata in rock formations can be dated in terms of these magnetic reversals. These are called magnetozones. Currently, our magnetic north pole is oriented roughly with our geographic North Pole, which is described as normal polarity as opposed to reverse polarity.

However, different rock types are more or less metallic in composition, and their structure varies. The best types of sediments for this kind of dating have fine-grained metallic elements that are more likely to orient with the ambient magnetic field at deposition.

The technique is particularly useful for gathering information about rates of sediment accumulation. Changes in magnetic orientations have been plotted on a Global Metallic Polarity Time Scale (GMPTS) and this can be plotted against the depth of sediment for a particular period of orientation, known as a chron (intervals of less than 200,000 years are called sub-chrons).

There are of course other dating methods, including relative dating based on reliably dated fossil samples, and new ‘absolute dating’ techniques are being developed all the time, including, for example, thermoluminescence, electron spin resonance and electron paramagnetic resonance for dating fossil teeth. But I’ll need to learn a lot more about them.

References

Madelaine Böhme, Rudiger Braun & Florian Breier, Ancient bones: unearthing the astonishing new story of how we became human, 2020

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/earth-and-planetary-sciences/magnetostratigraphy

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnetostratigraphy

https://www.spectroscopyeurope.com/component/content/article/3328-dating-fossil-teeth-by-electron-paramagnetic-resonance-how-is-that-possible

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/1040618289900104

https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/image_maps/37-c-14-carbon-dating-process

more on vaccines

nice image showing the storage requirements of the two vaccines soon to be available in Australia – filched from the ABC

While I’m on vaccines, the Oxford vaccine is another. A friend sent me a link to an article in The Independent, a UK newspaper, headed ‘Oxford scientists preparing to design new versions of Covid vaccine in response to variants’. Variants are cropping up around the world at the moment, the UK variant (called B117) being followed by a South African and Brazilian variant. That’s unlikely to be the last of them. However the three leading lights re covid19 vaccines, Oxford/AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, all say they’ve got B117 covered, and presumably are confident about other variants. Of course the key is whether adjusted vaccines can be produced rapidly in sufficient quantities.

However, there are other issues. The possible proliferation of variants raises the question of whether we can successfully vaccinate our way out of this pandemic. The South African variant (501Y.V2) is particularly concerning, as some patients’ antibodies, after treatment, are not recognising it. It isn’t yet clear how significant this development is.

So while we await developments, I want to look at the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine (ChAdOx1) in a bit more detail. A few basic facts. It has been developed from a chimpanzee adenovirus, a type of DNA virus that causes relatively mild symptoms in chimps (we know of over 60 adenovirus types, many of which cause cold and flu-like symptoms in humans). It’s the vaccine of choice of the British government, unsurprisingly, and some 100 million doses have been ordered so far. It’s also cheaper (at $3 to $4US a dose) and easier to store than the two other major vaccines, which makes it the best option for poorer nations. AstraZeneca has promised to always sell the vaccine at cost to those nations.

The adenovirus has been altered to include genetic material from SARS-CoV2, so as to evoke an effective antibody and T-cell response to that virus – which has presumably been tested in clinical trials. The vaccine is described as up to 90% effective, depending on dosage, a lower percentage than the other two more expensive vaccines I’ve mentioned. Other vaccines, including Russia’s Sputnik-V and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, have been developed from adenoviruses. Oxford researchers have found, unexpectedly, that giving a half-dose, followed weeks later by a full dose, improved efficacy by up to 90%, compared to 62% for two full doses. The reason for this result remains a mystery – further research required. It should be noted that vaccines with 60-70% efficacy are generally regarded as successful.

As I write, I’ve heard that Australia’s medical regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has approved the Pfizer vaccine for use here. Ten million doses will be rolled out in late February, after batch testing by the TGA. Why did they approve this version first? That will require further investigation, but I suspect that the greater flexibility of this new mRNA technology – all they need is the genetic sequence of a new SARS-CoV2 variant to create a vaccine to cover it – might have been a deciding factor.

However, it may well be that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which should be approved soon, and which has been put on order, will be the most widely available, due to ease of storage and a cheaper price tag. Australia is able to manufacture this vaccine locally, so that supply shouldn’t be a problem.

Other issues – which authorities are not so willing to discuss given the need to protect high-risk individuals at the outset – are the vaccination of children, and how to deal with vaccine reluctance, or hesitancy, the new buzz-terms for anti-vaxxers. This leads to the issue of herd immunity, which I’ll discuss in my next post.

References

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/covid-oxford-vaccine-uk-variant-doses-b1790026.html

https://www.bbc.com/news/av/explainers-55044811

https://www.ft.com/content/49d4a7ff-a20c-4ac2-84f7-d9dbab1d431f

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-01-25/pfizer-vaccine-approved-australia-but-is-it-the-one-you-will-get/13088856