Monday, 30 September 2013

Molten Air Batteries: High Storage Capacity but High Costs as Well

Researchers working on creating batteries with ever-increasing storage capacity have made great strides with molten battery technology. Their latest creation, known as the molten air battery, is capable of storage capacities so high that they make the nearest competitor seem small by comparison. One version of this new battery has a capacity of 27,000 WH per litre.

Molten air batteries use a combination of oxygen and molten salt to store energy via multi-electron molecules. What gives these batteries such a high storage capacity is the ability to store multiple electrons within a single molecule. Traditional batteries are only capable of a single electron per molecule.

Adding to the attractiveness of the new technology is the fact that the molten air batteries are fully rechargeable. In theory, they could be used to power everything from electric cars to battery backup systems used by data centres and collocation facilities. The biggest drawback at this time is the cost of producing and maintaining the batteries.

The raw materials to build the batteries automatically introduce price challenges keeping them out of the commercial market. But it doesn't stop there. The cost of charging the batteries is also prohibitive. Unless researchers and manufacturers can figure out a way to bring the costs down then it's unlikely the batteries will ever get beyond the concept stage.

Other Considerations

The high storage capacity of molten air batteries does result in an astoundingly high operating temperatures – the molten electrolyte operates in the region of 800°C at peak. However, management of such high temperatures should not be a problem if the batteries ever gain widespread acceptance. Many industries already use batteries operating in excess of 600°C.

Assuming costs of production operation can be brought under control, one wonders how these batteries could be put to use in the networking and IT services sectors. Could they be used as storage vehicles for solar thermal or photovoltaic systems? If so, would it be possible to operate a data centre or collocation facility completely off the grid? It is something to think about...

As Europe continues to lead the way in the creation of sustainable energy options for the IT sector, these batteries could play an integral part. It is easy to envision a brand new data centre using solar thermal as its primary energy source during the day. Excess energy could be stored in molten air battery systems to power the facility throughout the night hours.

In concept, such systems seem completely viable yet, in practice, it may not be the case any time within the foreseeable future. It may take decades to reach that point, if it's reachable at all.

In all likelihood, the first commercial application of the batteries will probably be electric cars. However, success there could translate into many other applications where traditional batteries are inadequate. All of this is speculation, of course – nothing could seriously be considered until the issue of cost effectiveness is dealt with.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Fingerprint Technology from Apple Raises Security Questions

Imagine walking up to the entrance of one of the biggest data centre facilities in the world, placing your thumb on a fingerprint reader, and instantly gaining access with no questions asked. It's the stuff of sci-fi movies and futuristic stories. Or is it?

Thanks to new technology from Apple, this type of security and personal recognition system may not be too far off. Yet, the fingerprinting scheme that is now part of the Apple iPhone 5S is already raising security questions among both technology geeks and politicians.

In the United States, liberal Minnesota senator Al Franken has written a letter to Apple's Tim Cook expressing his concerns. Franken is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law. His committee is very interested in knowing where the new fingerprinting technology might lead in the future.

Franken's concerns about the technology are legitimate no matter what your political leanings are. Even now there are hackers like's Nick DePetrillo and Robert Graham who are offering rewards to anyone who can successfully breach an iPhone 5S using a fingerprint lifted from another source.

If anyone succeeds, and there is no reason to believe it will not happen, it might be possible to steal someone's identity for life just by lifting a fingerprint. So much for secure hosting, encrypted financial transactions, and all of the other security measures we take to protect ourselves. Once someone has your fingerprint, your identity is compromised permanently.

Senator Franken raised this concern, along with others, in the letter he wrote to Apple. He wants to know if fingerprint data could ever be stolen from an iPhone and converted into some type of usable format by hackers. Franken is also concerned that the iPhone 5S may be transmitting sensitive information back to Apple and that any extracted fingerprint information might not be protected by privacy laws.

Be Careful What You Wish For

The security questions surrounding the Apple fingerprinting scheme serves as a wonderful illustration of the principle of being careful with what you wish for. For decades, we have been looking to advances in technology as the best way to ensure security in networking, identity management, and other areas.

Unfortunately, we are forgetting one of the fundamental rules of security: the more complex the system, the more vulnerable it is. If we truly want to go down the road of fingerprint, iris, and facial recognition technology as the best way to ensure digital security, we are opening ourselves to the risk of permanent ID theft that could never be reversed. Once the horse has bolted, there is no getting it back in.

Those who are concerned about where all of this is leading would likely rather see Apple abandon plans for fingerprint-based security until all of the questions can be answered. Yet that is not likely to happen. In the race to be the most technologically advanced smart phone provider, they will undoubtedly press on uninhibited with Android and other manufacturers bound to follow in quick succession...

Monday, 23 September 2013

European Commission Announces New IT-Based Education Initiatives

There are many changes coming to EU education if European Commissioner for Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes has anything to say about it. Kroes took the occasion of last week's FT-Telefonica Millennials Summit in Brussels to announce a brand-new initiative focusing on transforming education by incorporating it with IT services.

The commissioner believes ICT-based education is sorely lacking all across Europe, leaving European students behind as the rest of the world advances. She says the only way to change things is to transform the educational paradigm in a way that provides children the ICT education they need.

"It’s not about just putting some computers in classrooms or giving your school a website," she told the assembled conference.  "It’s about ICT transforming teaching, just as it has transformed and disrupted so much else in our lives."

If nothing else, the commissioner's words made it clear that she is not happy with current educational standards or recent initiatives designed to improve them. She specifically named the Connected Continent program, which she claims is a compromise program offering very little value. Kroes believes the European Commission's Opening Up Education initiative is far better.

Opening Up Education will focus on remote and flexible learning options designed to increase the number of educational resources available to students. Part of the initiative will also focus on making sure teachers have the ICT knowledge they need to be effective educators as, without effective teachers, the entire plan is unlikely to be successful.

The Changing World

The primary driving force behind the European Commission's agenda is the belief that by 2020, 90% of Europe's jobs will require some level of digital skills; skills today's students are lacking. The commission says half of the students in Europe's schools currently do not get sufficient ICT education, if any at all. The new initiative aims to change that by providing both instruction and equipment.

A companion initiative known as Startup Europe has already begun to transform the way Europe's businesses look at education. An offshoot of that initiative is the Start-Up Manifesto, a collection of suggestions intended to make Europe a place of constant innovation. Company CEOs and technology experts alike, to the tune of 3,334 individuals, have signed up to the manifesto.

If the power to prepare Europe's students to work in the digital world rests in education and business initiatives like Opening Up Education and Startup Europe, we would expect to see measurable results from them in the near future. In the absence of those results, Europe will need to re-think its views on education.

It may turn out that these initiatives are just what are needed for a smarter, better educated and more productive Europe. However, if they're not, we must be willing to immediately set them aside in favour of other strategies already proven to work. It is important that Europe does not allow idealism and politics to cloud reality. To do so would be a disservice to our children and all of Europe.

Friday, 20 September 2013

MeyGen Given Consent for Scottish Tidal Project

Mey Gen Ltd, a joint venture established between Morgan Stanley, GDF SUEZ, and Atlantis Resources Corporation, has reached an important milestone in its drive to create a commercially viable tidal energy array. The milestone comes by way of consent from Marine Scotland to pursue the project. Though this is just the starting point, gaining regulatory approval is one of the biggest hurdles any company has to overcome when projects potentially threaten the environment.

According to sources, MeyGen will build an initial array of up to six turbines in the Inner Sound of the Pentland Firth. Pentland Firth divides the Orkney Islands from Caithness off Scotland's northern coast. The site was chosen because it is one of Europe's greatest tidal resources. The company believes a demonstration of success here will open the door for future tidal energy projects.

News reports claim the new project is the largest of its kind to be approved in Europe. Although the initial build calls for an 86 MW generating capacity, it has been suggested the project could eventually grow to nearly 400 MW. That's a significant amount of energy that is both efficient and sustainable.

According to MeyGen officials, getting consent for the project was the culmination of more than four years of work. The company poured time, money, and resources into environmental studies, consulting with stakeholders, and networking with the local communities likely to be impacted by the project. The overall effort was successful in easing concerns of potential environmental harm.

One of the reasons approval took so long is the fact that the area is a very important one for local wildlife. Harming the habitats of both marine life and mammals could have a devastating impact on the region's unique ecosystem.

Tidal Energy for the Future

Until recently, tidal energy was considered unviable for commercial purposes due to its high cost of production. What's more, there are a limited number of regions around the world with the right tidal conditions to make energy production worthwhile. Advances in technology have changed that.

The new turbine arrays proposed by MeyGen take advantage of the latest technology to improve efficiency, increase production and drive down costs. Assuming the project succeeds as intended, it is a potential game-changer in the arena of sustainable energy.

The advantage tidal energy has over its solar and wind counterparts is reliability. Tides are consistent from one day to the next whereas wind and sun, on the other hand, come and go at their own discretion. The predictability and raw power of tidal cycles make them a more reliable source of sustainable energy as long as costs can be contained.

Once the MeyGen turbines are built and tested, the next project is to create the infrastructure necessary to support them on a large scale.  That will be the easy part. From there it is simply a matter of proving that tidal energy from Pentland Firth is worth the investment.  We'll have to wait to see how that goes...

Monday, 16 September 2013

Vodafone Acknowledges Serious Security Breach

Late last week it was learned that Vodafone Germany was the victim of a very serious security breach that compromised the personal information of more than 2 million customers. The German arm of the UK-based phone network acknowledged the security breach but claimed the potential damage was limited.

Exactly when the breach occurred is not clear. Vodafone officials say German authorities asked them immediately after discovering the breach not to publicly disclose it. They were afraid public disclosure might interfere with their investigation. Vodafone only acknowledged the problem last week once the police investigation was concluded.

According to company officials, the security breach was an inside job carried out by an employee who had knowledge regarding the most sensitive parts of the company's networking and data systems. The highly complex breach was so sophisticated that it would not have been something the average IT worker could have pulled off. Even so, that does not allay the fears of consumers worried their personal data may have been compromised.

The attack resulted in the perpetrator stealing names, addresses, dates of birth and some limited bank account information from internal network sources. However, Vodafone insisted the perpetrator did not gain access to credit card details, PINs and passwords, or mobile phone numbers. Nonetheless, the data that was stolen could be used for criminal purposes.

The good news is that the individual was identified and arrested. Furthermore, his home was searched and his assets seized. Vodafone is fairly confident they have contained the damage, saying in an official statement that customers have nothing to worry about at this point.

It should be noted that Vodafone operates in several countries throughout Europe including Greece, Ireland, Italy, and Spain. In Germany, the company has some 36 million customers. Vodafone officials say the attack involved only that German group. Customers in other countries have not been affected by the attack.

Internal Security Threats

In this day and age of cloud computing, virtualisation, and global communications, this attack serves as a reminder that external security threats are not the only thing companies need to worry about. Internal security is just as important, if not more so.

In its own defence, Vodafone rightly asserted that it maintains ‘world-class security systems which are constantly updated and upgraded’. It would appear those same security systems also enabled them to quickly identify the most recent internal security breach so that the perpetrator could be apprehended quickly. Kudos to them for that.

At the same time, continued vigilance is an absolute must. As the world becomes more interconnected through the Internet and mobile devices, it becomes more and more likely that such internal attacks will increase. It is imperative for everyone in the industry to do whatever is necessary to strengthen security systems.

This should include things like better hardware and software, better infrastructure design, and improved operational protocols. Yet it also includes the ability of IT security experts to remain flexible to adapt quickly to whatever threats come their way...