Olympic Hydrogen Hype

Today’s Japan Times reports that the Organizing Committee of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is considering the use of hydrogen torches to light the Olympic flame (“Olympic panel mulls high-tech hydrogen torch, pares soccer venues” — JT, 2017-02-27):

“An important theme of the Olympics is how to promote environmental sustainability. We will talk to experts and see how realistic it is in terms of technological development,” a committee member said.

One official said there are still safety and cost concerns, and asserted that there also was a need for a lightweight torch that can be easily carried.

In March 2016, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government announced a project to have the 6,000-unit athletes’ village for the games run entirely on hydrogen power.

The Japanese government is one of the most active promoters worldwide of a so called “hydrogen economy”. It sees the 2020 Olympics as an opportunity to showcase Japan’s lead on hydrogen. Other projects are the construction of a nationwide network of hydrogen filling stations for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCV) such as the Toyota Mirai, research into shipping liquefied hydrogen from overseas using special tankers and production of hydrogen from lignite (brown coal) in Australia for export to Japan.

Let’s start with the most obvious problem in the article, the hydrogen fueled torch: The usual Olympic torches use LPG (propane/butane) as a fuel, a gas mixture that can be stored as a liquid under moderate pressure at normal outdoor temperatures. This makes it easy to carry a significant amount of fuel in a light weight container. Hydrogen by contrast does not liquefy unless chilled to about -252 C. Hydrogen powered vehicles run on compressed hydrogen instead, at pressures of up to 700 bar, equivalent to half the weight of a car on each cm2 of tank surface. As you can imagine that kind of pressure calls for some fairly sturdy containers. An even bigger problem is that pure hydrogen flames are invisible because they radiate energy not as light but as UV. You could feel the heat, but you couldn’t directly see if the flame is burning or not, which makes it quite hazardous. Talk about playing with fire…

The comment about running the Olympic village on “hydrogen power” is quite misleading. It’s like saying they would run the Olympic village on battery power, without explaining where the energy to charge those batteries came from. Like batteries, hydrogen is not a primary energy source, it’s an energy carrier. Since elementary hydrogen does not exist in significant quantities on earth, it has to be produced using another energy source such as natural gas or electricity generated using coal, nuclear, wind or solar.

Though it’s possible to produce hydrogen from carbon-free energy sources such as solar electricity (splitting water through electrolysis) and then produce electricity from hydrogen again, this process is far less efficient than either consuming renewable electricity directly or via batteries. When you convert electric energy to chemical energy in hydrogen and back to electricity, about 3/4 of the energy is lost in the process. This is incredibly wasteful and far from green.

With its sponsorship of hydrogen, the Japanese government is trying to create business opportunities for industrial companies such as Kawasaki Heavy Industries, a Japanese shipbuilder (see “Kawasaki Heavy fighting for place in ‘hydrogen economy'” — Nikkei Asian Review, 2015-09-03) and for its oil and gas importers, as almost all hydrogen is currently made from imported liquefied natural gas (LNG). In the longer term, the government still has a vision of nuclear power (fission or fusion) producing the electricity needed to make hydrogen without carbon emissions. Thus the ‘hydrogen economy’ is meant to keep oil companies and electricity monopolies like TEPCO in business. The “hydrogen economy” is coal, oil and nuclear hidden under a coat of green paint.

These plans completely disregard the rapid progress being made in battery technologies which have already enabled electric cars with ranges of hundreds of km at lower costs than HFCVs and without the need for expensive new infrastructure.

Hydrogen, especially when it’s produced with carbon-intensive coal or dangerous nuclear, is not the future. Japan would be much better served by investing into a mix of wind, solar, geothermal and wave power, combined with battery storage and other technologies for matching up variable supply and demand.

See also:
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Are Not The Future (2016-12-05)

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Are Not The Future

On my bicycle ride last Saturday I passed a service station near Hachioji in western Tokyo that is being set up as a hydrogen station for fuel cell cars. Japan is in the process of setting up such infrastructure to support a small fleet fuel cell vehicles such as the Toyota Mirai (its name means “future” in Japanese).

For decades, hydrogen has been touted as an alternative fuel for transport once we move beyond fossil fuels. The idea was that it can be made in essentially unlimited amounts from water using electricity from solar, wind or nuclear power (from either fission or fusion reactors). The only tailpipe emission would be water, which goes back into nature.

Unlike electric cars, which have limited range compared to fossil fuel cars, hydrogen cars can be refilled fairly quickly, like conventional cars, giving them a longer operating range. Car manufacturers have experimented with both internal combustion engines (ICE) running on hydrogen and fuel cell stacks that produce electricity to drive a traction motor. Both liquefied and compressed hydrogen has been tested for storage.

Here is a Honda fuel cell car I photographed on Yakushima in 2009:

It’s been a long road for hydrogen cars so far. Hydrogen fuel cells were already providing electricity for spacecrafts in the Apollo missions in the 1960s and 70s. With the launch of production cars and hydrogen fuel stations opening now in Japan, the US and Europe it seems the technology is finally getting ready for prime time. However, the reality is quite different.

Arguably the biggest challenge for hydrogen cars now is not the difficulty of bringing down the cost of fuel cells or improving their longevity or getting refueling infrastructure set up, but the spread of hybrid and electric cars. Thanks to laptops and mobile devices there has been a huge market for new battery technology, which attracted investment into research and development and scaled up manufacturing. Eventually reduced costs allowed this technology to cross over into the automotive industry. The battery packs of the Tesla Roadster were assembled from the same industry standard “18650” Li-ion cells that are the building blocks of laptop batteries.

Li-ion batteries have been rapidly falling in price year after year, allowing bigger battery packs to be built that improved range. A car like the Nissan Leaf that is rated for a range of 135 to 172 km (depending on the model) would cover the daily distances of most people on most days without recharging during daytime. Not only are prices falling and range is increasing, the cars can also harness the existing electricity grid for infrastructure. A charging station is a fraction of the price of a hydrogen filling station.

Here in Japan I find many charging stations in convenience store parking lots, at restaurants, in malls and at car dealerships – just about anywhere but at gasoline stations, which is where the few hydrogen stations are being installed.

After the tsunami and nuclear meltdown hit Japan in March 2011, some people here viewed electric cars and their claimed ecological benefits with suspicion: The Nissan Leaf may not have a tail pipe, but didn’t its electricity come from nuclear power stations? This criticism is not entirely justified, because electricity can be produced in many different ways, including wind, sun and geothermal. Car batteries of parked cars are actually quite a good match for the somewhat intermittent output of wind and solar, because they could act as a buffer to absorb excess generating capacity while feeding power back into the grid when demand peaks. If cars were charged mostly when load is low (for example, at night) then no new power stations or transmission lines would have to be built to accommodate them within the existing distribution network.

The dark secret of hydrogen is that, if produced from water and electricity through electrolysis, it is actually a very inefficient energy carrier. To produce the hydrogen needed to power a fuel cell car for 100 km consumes about three times as much electricity as it takes to charge the batteries of an electric car to cover the same distance. That’s mostly because there are far greater energy losses in both electrolysis and in fuel cells than there are in charging and discharging a battery. A fuel cell car actually has all of the above losses, because even fuel cells still costing about $100,000 are not powerful enough to handle peak loads, therefore a battery is still required. Think of a hydrogen fuel cell car as a regular electric car with an added fuel cell stack to recharge the battery while the car is running. This means a fuel cell car suffers the relative small charge/discharge losses of a battery-electric car on top of the much bigger losses in electrolysis and fuel cells that only a hydrogen car has.

What this 3x difference in energy efficiency means is that if we were to replace fossil-fueled cars with hydrogen-fueled cars running on renewable energy, we would have to install three times more solar panels and build three times as many wind turbines as it would take to charge the same number of electric cars. Who would pay for that and why?

Even if the power source was nuclear, we would be producing three times as much nuclear waste to refill hydrogen cars than to recharge battery-electric cars — waste that will be around for thousands of years. That makes no sense at all.

So why are hydrogen fuel cell car still being promoted then? Maybe 20-30 years ago research into hydrogen cars made sense, as insurance in case other alternatives to petroleum didn’t work out, but today the facts are clear: The hydrogen economy is nothing but a boondoggle. It is being pursued for political reasons.

Electrolysis of water is not how industrial hydrogen is being produced. The number one source for it is a process called steam reformation of natural gas (which in Japan is mostly imported as LNG). Steam reformation releases carbon dioxide and contributes to man-made global warming. By opting for hydrogen fuel cell cars over electric cars, we’re helping to keep the oil industry in business. That you find hydrogen on the forecourt of gas stations that are mostly selling gasoline and diesel now is not a coincidence. Hydrogen is not the “fuel of the future”, it’s a fossil fuel in new clothes.

Due to the inefficiency of the hydrogen production it would actually make more sense from both a cost and environmental point of view to burn the natural gas in highly efficient combined cycle power stations (gas turbines coupled with a steam turbine) feeding electricity into the grid to charge electric cars instead of producing hydrogen for fuel cell cars from natural gas.

Even if electrolysis is terribly inefficient, by maximizing demand for electricity it can provide a political fig leaf for restarting and expanding nuclear power in Japan. Both the “nuclear fuel cycle” involving Fast Breeder Reactors and the promise of nuclear fusion that is always another 30-50 years away were sold partly as a power source for a future “hydrogen economy”.

While I’m sorry that my tax money is being used to subsidize hydrogen cars, I don’t think hydrogen as a transport fuel will ever take off in the market. Electric cars came up from behind and overtook fuel cell cars. The price of batteries keeps falling rapidly year after year, driven by massive investment in research and development by three independent powerful industries: IT/mobile, automotive and the power companies.

The hydrogen dream won’t die overnight. I expect the fuel cell car project will drag on through inertia, perhaps until battery electric cars will outnumber fossil fueled cars in Japan and only then will finally be cancelled.

Tepco drowning in radioactive water

A recent leak of 300 tons of highly radioactive water at Fukushima No. 1 has highlighted the long term problems that Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) is facing in its struggle to manage the crisis at the wrecked nuclear power station (see Japan Times, 2013-08-21). One massive steel tank had been leaking as much as 10 tons of water a day for a month before the leak was noticed. The water level in the tank dropped by 3 m before anyone noticed. It is not clear yet how the water is escaping.

The water in the tank has been used for cooling the melted reactor cores. Consequently it is highly radioactive from strontium, cesium and tritium. At a distance of 50 cm, as much as 100 millisieverts per hour (mSv/h) were measured. That means a nuclear worker there would absorb as much radiation in one hour as is legally permitted over a total of 5 years.

You might think that with a witches’ brew like that on its hands, Tepco would take every possible precaution to prevent leaks and to monitor fluid levels. Tepco uses both welded steel tanks and temporary tanks for storing contaminated water at Fukushima No. 1. Welded tanks are supposed to be stronger and more leak proof, whereas temporary tanks can be bolted together quickly from sheet metal and plastic. About one third of the over 1000 tanks at Fukushima No. 1 are temporary tanks, including the one that recently leaked. Tanks of this type have been used at the site since December 2011 and they are supposed to last five years before needing repair or replacement. So far 4 of these tanks have leaked, yet Tepco is planning to install even more temporary tanks for storing water. I guess they must be cheaper.

I am curious why the leaks were not detected sooner. Are there no monitoring devices installed that can automatically report water levels?

Tepco is planning to treat the water in the tanks with its ALPS filtering system, which can remove radioactive cesium and strontium from the water, but not tritium. It was meant to start operating this month, but after problems it is now expected to not resume operation until December.

Even after treatment, Tepco will have a water problem. Any water pumped from the turbine halls that has been in contact with the reactor basements has elevated levels of radioactive tritium. No chemical removal system exists for tritium, as it’s an isotope of hydrogen, one of the two elements that make up water. Tepco can not simply evaporate water from those tanks to reduce volume and concentrate contaminants into a smaller volume, as the tritium would be released with water vapour and come down as rain again elsewhere. So what is it going to do? Release it into the atmosphere slowly? Dilute it with sea water? Or store hundreds of thousands of tons of water for hundreds of years? Neither alternative seems very appealing.

The earth4energy scam

In recent months I have come across many ads for a website called earth4energy.com. If you haven’t seen the ads, it makes implausible claims of anyone being able to become energy independent for a only small investment. Make no mistake, it’s a scam, designed to sell worthless “e-books”. See this site for a thorough debunking of their claims.

The fact is, the electricity usage of average households can not be met easily or on the cheap from renewable sources using some DIY design. Any photovoltaic panels or wind turbines that are powerful enough to make a significant contribution will cost you a lot of money, typically at least several years worth of your normal electricity bill. These people would have you believe that for a few hundred dollars you could become independent of the utility companies. They do so because their business is selling e-books and videos to people. The exaggerated claims are how they get people to send them money. They are using an elaborate affiliate scheme and paid online ads to fish wide and far for people who might fall for their promises.

What I find particularly interesting about earth4energy.com is how similar it looks to the earlier “Run your car on water” scam I reported about a little over 4 years ago that made similarly outrageous claims. Then they promised cutting your fuel bill by wiring a “hydrogen generator” to your car alternator. Of course it didn’t work.

Both scams made money by selling worthless e-books. Both used affiliate schemes. On either set of sites when you try to navigate away from it, a dialog box will pop up to ask you if you really want to leave, trying to keep you there. If both schemes were not run by the same person, I’d guess they either used the same web designer or one guy closely copied the other. Typical for the hype used to sell on both sites is a “limited time offer” on earth4energy.com. When I checked it, it said the special offer expired on November 22 at midnight, which is today:

To secure your purchase and get the bonus products for free please order now. (This offer expires Thursday November 22 at midnight)

When I checked the source code of the earth4energy.com website, I found this piece of Javascript code that always outputs the current date:

To secure your purchase and get the bonus products for free please <a href=”ordercd.php”>order now</a>. (This offer expires
<script type=”text/javascript”>
var d=new Date()
var weekday=new Array(“Sunday”,”Monday”,”Tuesday”,”Wednesday”,
“Thursday”,”Friday”,”Saturday”)
var monthname=new Array(“January”,”February”,”March”,”April”,”May”,
“June”,”July”,”August”,”September”,”October”,”November”,”December”)
document.write(weekday[d.getDay()] + ” “)
document.write(monthname[d.getMonth()] + ” “)
document.write(d.getDate() + ” “)
</script>
at midnight)</p>

It will tell you the offer expires on today’s weekday and today’s exact date at midnight. It will do so today, tomorrow or a year from now. The offer is not meant to ever expire, the fake deadline is only claimed to rush you into buying. That is just one example of deception on their site.

The identity of the registrant of domain “earth4energy.com” is hidden behind a WHOIS proxy, so we don’t know who it is. What’s interesting though is that the site was registered in June of 2008, around when I wrote about the earlier scam. Back then there was a site called water4gas.com (notice the similar naming scheme!) run by a guy calling himself “Ozzie Freedom”, whose original name was Eyal Siman-Tov. He is from Israel and appeared to be a member of the Scientology cult. In 2008 he got sued by the state of Texas for deceptive business practises. You can read about the court case here.

I find it interesting how many web pages out there promote both water4gas by Ozzie Freedom and earth4energy.com. Here are a few of them. Is that by coincidence or are they connected?

Romney’s energy self-sufficiency fallacy

Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for US president, recently made headlines by proposing that under his policies the US could become independent of energy imports by 2020. To make this claim slightly less incredible (the US uses 20% of the world’s petroleum while holding only 3% of its proven reserves), he included Canada and Mexico in his plan, effectively widening the scope to all of North America. The essence of his plan, which was received favourably by conservative media, are policies to boost hydrocarbon output (oil and gas production). The aim of the policy is to create jobs in exploration while keeping energy costs low for consumers, boosting the economy.

Let us assume that government policy could actually significantly boost oil and gas production. What effect would that have on the US and world economy in the next decades?

There was a time when the US was largely self sufficient on petroleum. Output was growing rapidly until the 1940s. However, new discoveries could not keep up with the rate of depletion of old wells. Production in the contiguous 48 states peaked in the early 1970s. The US became increasingly dependent on imports for oil supplies.

Worldwide hydrocarbon reserves are limited. There will come a point when worldwide production will peak (some believe it has already been reached) and from then on, rising oil prices will ensure that consumers reduce their demand to match available declining production.

Let us assume that, thanks to Mr Romney’s policies, oil and gas production in North America will magically rise enough to cover the entire amount currently being imported from the Middle East, South America and elsewhere (an assumption that is extremely optimistic according to experts). The amount currently imported will then become available as extra supplies to China, India, Brazil, Europe, Japan and other countries, keeping energy costs low for them and allowing them to compete more effectively with US manufacturers over the next decade.

At some point those new oil wells, shale gas wells and tar sand pits will run dry too. What then? By then oil will be a far more scarce resource, with more cars, motorcycles and power stations in China, India, Brazil, Thailand, Malaysia, etc. burning it than today, as those economies will have been rapidly growing. At that point the US will have to revert to buying oil from Saudi Arabia again, whose reserves are estimated to be more long-lasting than North America’s. It will have no reserves left to replace those premium price imports then. Every dollar saved on import substitution in the next couple of years could cost US consumers 10 dollars then.

Imagine a world in which the price of oil were to double every decade. The oil in the ground in North America won’t go away unless it is pumped up and used. Why would you want to consume it while it’s worth only $70 a barrel instead of when it’s $140 or $280 a barrel? In a world of rising prices it pays to be a buyer early and a seller later.

Perversely, one of the beneficiaries of US policies on oil could be Iran. Economic sanctions linked to the country’s suspected nuclear weapons program have depressed Iranian oil sales. The more slowly Iranian oil reserves are depleted, the more Iran will benefit economically from these reserves when they are eventually used after oil prices have gone up.

Japan without nuclear power

Since last weekend, Japan is without a single nuclear power station feeding power into the grid, the first time in 42 years. All 50 nuclear power stations are currently off-line (this count does not include the 4 wrecked reactors in Fukushima I, which are no longer officially counted — it used to be 54 nuclear power stations).

Some of these power stations were shut down because of problems after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Others were taken offline one by one for routine inspections and maintenance but have not been started up again, which would only happen with the consent of nearby local governments. That consent has not been forthcoming.

Electrical utilities and the government are raising concerns about a power shortage when the summer heat sets in, which usually results in peak usage for air conditioners. Critics of nuclear power see an opportunity for a quick exit from nuclear power. Others are concerned that if the government rushes to bring power stations back online before the summer without safety upgrades and a change in the regulatory regime, a unique chance to prevent the next nuclear disaster will be squandered. If upgrades and reforms don’t happen when the memory of Fukushima is still relatively fresh, what’s the chance of it happening a few years down the road?

The utility companies are facing high costs from buying more fossil fuels for gas and oil fired thermal power stations to cover the demand; restarting the nuclear power stations would keep those costs in check. But that is only part of the reason they are keen on a restart. The sooner they can return to the pre-Fukushima state of power generation, the less leverage governments and the public have for making them accept new rules, such as retrofitting filters for emergency venting systems or a permanent shutdown of the oldest and seismically most vulnerable stations. Because of this it’s in the interest of the utilities to paint as bleak a picture of the situation as possible. Japan would be smart to proceed cautiously and not miss a unique chance to fix the problems that are the root cause of the Fukushima disaster and of disasters still waiting to happen.

Using Sanyo Eneloop Ni-MH AA batteries to power your mobile phone

About two years ago I started using Sanyo’s rechargeable eneloop batteries. These relatively inexpensive Nickel-Metal Hydride (Ni-MH) cells are available in both AA (単3形) and AAA (単4形) sizes. They are low self-discharge cells that keep their charge for months when not in use. I’ve bought boxes of 8 cells of either type, for use in flash lights, bike blinkies, helmet lights and Bluetooth keyboards.

They are initially more expensive to buy than regular alkaline (primary) cells, but you only need to re-use them about three times before they work out much cheaper than primary cells, while you can actually recharge them hundreds of times before they start losing significant capacity.

Here are some nice gadgets that will take them, which I found sold in convenience stores here Japan.

These little cases (by alicty.co.jp) take power from two or three regular alkaline AA or Ni-MH AA cells and provide a USB port for powering mobile phones and other small gadgets with a USB power cable. As you would expect, the three cell version is slightly more powerful, looking to my Google Samsung Nexus S as an AC charger (i.e. it provides more than 500 mA). For the two cell version, the phone shows “charging (USB)” as the status, i.e. it can draw up to 500 mA. The two cell version has a USB-A socket (female) for generic USB cables while the three cell version comes with an integrated micro USB (male) cable. A very similar concept has been around for a while as the MintyBoost.

The nice thing is, if you carry enough pre-charged eneloop cells with you, you can swap cells as needed and have virtually unlimited power. You could even buy primary cells to top up if desperate (one set came bundled with each device), but they would end up costing you more than re-usable eneloop cells in the long term. I’ll carry some Ni-MH cells as spares on long bike trips or hikes, which could come in handy with these little cases.

UPDATE 2012-04-04: I also tried using this adapter with alkaline (primary = non-rechargable) AA cells and it goes through them quite rapidly. Alkaline AA batteries have a notoriously poor performance in high drain applications because of their high internal resistance. You’re much better off sticking with Ni-MH batteries such as Sanyo Eneloop!

It says on the pack that a set of 3 AAs will boost the charge state of a smartphone battery by 30-40%, i.e. it would take you about 3 sets (9 cells) to fully recharge an empty battery. Or put another way, if the phone lasts 5 hours on one charge doing whatever you’re doing, you will consume a set of fresh AAs every 100 minutes to keep it topped up. To provide 500 mA at 5 V (2.5 W) on the USB connector at 80% efficiency would draw 3 W from the batteries, or 700 mA at 4.5 V (3 x 1.5 V). At that kind of load, an alkaline battery might only supply a quarter of its rated capacity, which is normally measured at a much smaller load (which is OK for alarm clocks, TV remote controls, etc. but not high powered electronics like digital cameras or smart phones).

Fukushima “cold shutdown” announcement up to 25 years too soon

The Japanese government has announced that the wrecked Fukushima Daiichi power station has reached a “cold shutdown”. The BBC quotes Prime Minister Noda:

“The nuclear reactors have reached a state of cold shutdown and therefore we can now confirm that we have come to the end of the accident phase of the actual reactors.”

It is meaningless to still use the term “cold shutdown” for a reactor in which the fuel rods and containment vessel have lost their integrity. It’s like saying the bleeding has been stopped in an injured patient who had actually bled to death.

The normal definition of “cold shutdown” is when, after the chain reaction has been stopped, decay heat inside the fuel rods has been reduced enough that the cooling water temperature finally drops below 100 C. This means the cooling water no longer boils at atmospheric pressure, making it possible to open the pressure vessel cap and remove the fuel rods from the reactor core into the spent fuel pool. After that the reactor core no longer needs to be cooled.

Only units 4, 5 and 6 have reached a genuine cold shutdown. Unit 4 had been shut down for repairs in 2010 and did not contain any fuel at the time of the accident. In units 5 and 6 a single emergency diesel survived the tsunami and prevented a meltdown there.

In units 1, 2 and 3 of Fukushima Daiichi the fuel melted, dropped to the bottom of the reactor pressure vessel and penetrated it. The melted rods then dripped down onto the concrete floor of the containment vessel and are assumed to have partly melted into the concrete up to an unknown depth.

While in a regular cold shutdown fuel can be unloaded within weeks, the Japanese government estimates it may take as much as 25 years before all fuel will have been removed. The technology to remove fuel in the state it’s in now does not even exist yet and will have to be developed from scratch. Even the most optimistic schedule puts it at 5 years, during which time the reactors will have to be cooled 24 hours a day, with no new earthquakes damaging them or knocking out cooling again, no major corrosion problems, no clogged water pipes, etc.

In my opinion, the announcement of a “cold shutdown” at Fukushima Daiichi is greatly exaggerated and was made mainly for political purposes. More than anything, it is meant to provide political cover for restarting other idled nuclear power stations during the coming year.

GPS-logging my bike rides

Five weeks ago I started logging my road bike rides, runs and mountain hikes using the GPS in my Google Nexus S Android phone. I use the iMapMyRide app which requires Android 2.1 and later (of course there’s also an iPhone version).

Start the app, a few taps on the screen and it starts recording. You can pause the recording any time, say if you stop for food or rest. When you’re done you can easily upload the complete route with GPS coordinates and timing to the MapMyRIDE.com website. Besides bike rides you can also use the app for hiking, running or walking.

As it records it displays basic map information, so it can be used for simple navigation too, but most of the time I relied on Google Maps for that.

Afterwards you can view the workout on your PC. It will show altitudes along the route, including total gain. It shows average speeds for each km of progress. It calculates how many kcals you used based on the route, your weight and your age.

A calendar view shows all days on which you exercised, with distances for each workout, weekly totals and monthly totals. This can be a powerful tool to keep up a certain level of exercise on a regular basis.

Battery usage

As with many mobile applications, battery life is of concern to users. So far my longest recorded hike was 5 1/2 hours and my longest bike ride was 4 1/2 hours. I have not run out of power yet, but I’ve had the battery low warning pop up on occasion.

There are a few things you can do to optimize power usage. I make sure to disable WiFi and Bluetooth to minimize power usage. If I am in areas without mobile data coverage, such as high on a mountain I switch the phone into “airplane mode”, which will still let it receive GPS data but it won’t download map data (which it can’t anyway without a nearby cell phone tower). Disabling these wireless connections prevents the phone from wasting energy on trying to reconnect.

It makes a big difference how much you use the LCD screen. If you often turn it on to consult the map for a new or unknown route that will eat battery life.

In order not to have to worry too much about that and to be able to record longer and further rides and hikes, I got myself a cheap external Li-ion battery on Amazon Japan, into which I can plug the USB cable of my Android phone for extra power. I paid JPY 2,380 (about $30) including shipping. Its capacity is listed as 5000 mAh and it has two USB output ports, plus one mini-USB input port for recharging. It comes with a USB cable for charging, a short spiral USB output cable and 10 adapters to connect it to different phone models (including the iPhone and iPod). Because of the standard USB ports you can use any existing USB cable that works with your phone. It’s like running your smartphone off power from your computer.

The device is about the weight and size of my phone. It came charged to about 60%. It should take a couple of hours to fully recharge it from empty.

If fully charged it should theoretically provide three complete charges for my mobile phone, which has a 1500 mAh battery inside, thereby quadrupling the length of rides I can record. Most likely, I will run out of energy long before my battery does 🙂

My longest distances with MapMyRIDE so far:

  • Bike ride: 71 km, 560 m elevation gain
  • Mountain hike: 14 km, 1020 m elevation gain
  • Run: 10 km in Tokyo

A few rough edges

While the iMapMyRIDE+ app feels fairly solid, it will need fixes for a few problems.

The major issue for me is that the app and the website don’t see eye to eye on time zones. For example, if I record a ride at 17:00 (5pm) to 18:00 (6pm) on a Sunday, the recorded workout title will include the correct time. However, if I view that workout on the computer’s web browser, it is shown on the calendar as having been recorded on the following day (Monday). If I check the details, the start and end times are listed as 8am (08:00) and 9am (09:00): Wrong day and off by 9 hours.

Probably not by coincidence my time zone (Japan Standard Time) is 9 hours ahead of UTC. It’s like the app sends up the start and end time in UTC but the website thinks the data is local time. Yet for determining the date it seems to add those 9 hours again, which takes it beyond midnight and Sunday gets turned into Monday.

I can manually correct every single workout from the website, which also fixes that date on the calendar, but then the app displays the wrong time, which I am prepared to simply ignore.

When I enter my height on the website and then view my details on the app, I am 2 cm shorter than I entered, perhaps as the result of my height having been converted from metric to imperial and back to metric with numeric truncation.

I wish the site would support 24 hour clocks, not just AM/PM. I also wish the site would let the metric size to be entered as cm, not just m and cm separately (probably a hangover from code written for feet and inches).

Note to the app developers out there: The world is much bigger than the US and most of it is metric.

UPDATE 2011-12-13:

I have used the Li-ion battery on two weekend bike rides now. One was 93 km, the other 101 km in length. In both cases I first used the phone normally until the remaining charge level was heading towards 20% (after maybe 4 hours), then I hooked it up to the 5000 mAh battery and continued the ride. The longer of the two rides was about 8 hours, including lunch and other breaks. At the end of the 101 km ride the phone battery was back up to 75% charged, while the external battery was down to 1 of 5 LEDs, i.e. close to empty.

I wasn’t as careful to conserve power with the external battery hooked up. My phone is configured to not go into sleep mode while hooked up to a USB cable, unless I manually push the power button. That’s because I also use it for Android application development, where it’s controlled from a PC via the cable. I should really turn that developer mode off on rides to have the screen blank after a minute as usual even when getting external power. Total capacity with the external battery probably at least 10 or 11 hours, more if I put the phone into “airplane mode”, which disables map updates and hence navigation.

My headlight currently consists of a twin white LED light using a pair of CR2032 batteries that I need to replace every now and then. It’s not very bright, especially where there are no street lights. Probably next year I’ll upgrade the front wheel using a Shimano DH-3N72 dynamo hub,

which can provide up to 3W of power while adding very little drag. A 6V AC to USB adapter will allow me to power USB devices like my phone and the headlights from this without ever having to buy disposable batteries or connecting anything to a mains charger.

UPDATE 2012-01-02:

I have had the front wheel of my Bike Friday rebuilt with a Shimano DH-3N80 dynamo hub. The old 105 hub is now a spare while the rim with tube and tyre were reused. Here is the bike in our entrance hall:

Closeup view of the hub with AC power contacts:

I purchased a USB power adapter made by Kuhn Elektronik GmbH in Germany. It weighs 40 g and measures 8 cm by 2.5 cm. It provides a standard USB-A socket which fits standard USB cables such as the one that came with my Google Nexus S:

USB power adapter with Google Nexus S:

UPDATE 2012-03-14:

At the end of January I started using Strava for tracking rides, in addition to MapMyRides (MMR). I stopped using the MMR app because there is no way in MMR to export GPX files with time stamps, so you can not track your speed or performance on any sites besides MMR. They lock in your data. Instead I either record with Strava on my Android 4 Nexus S or with Endomondo on my Android 1.6 Google Ion. That way I can generate GPX files that will upload to Strava, Endomondo, MapMyRide or just about any other site. The automatic competition feature of Strava is superb. MMR’s best features are its calendar view with weekly and monthly statistics and its mapping feature for planning rides. If those were merged with what Strava can do, it would be a terrific GPS cycling app and site.

Radiation maps for Eastern Japan

The Japanese government has released updated radiation maps for Eastern Japan from its helicopter survey. The maps now cover prefectures as far west as Gifu and as far north as Iwate and Akita. Previously there was map data only for Tokohoku (excluding Aomori) and the Kanto area. The PDF can be downloaded here.

The previous set of maps documented caesium contamination and background radiation levels in Fukushima, Tochigi, Miyagi, Ibaraki, Chiba, Saitama, Tokyo and Kanagawa. The latest set adds maps for Iwate, Shizuoka, Nagano, Yamanashi, Gifu and Toyama. Akita, Yamagata and Niigata have also been surveyed and are shown on the overview map.

The most heavily contaminated areas are in the eastern half of Fukushima prefecture, within about 80 km of the wrecked nuclear power stations. The southern part of Miyagi to the north and the northern part of Ibaraki to the south also took a hit.

A major radioactive plume moved south-west from Fukushima, polluting the northern half of Tochigi and the northern and western part of Gunma. A separate plume reached the southern part of Ibaraki, the north-west of Chiba and the eastern part of Tokyo.

There is also some caesium in the mountainous far west of Tokyo and Saitama that extended from Tochigi, but most of Saitama, Tokyo and Kanagawa seem relatively OK, as are Shizuoka, Yamanashi, Nagano, Gifu, Tokyama, Niigata, Yamagata and Akita. There is some fallout in a strip from southern Iwate to northern Miyagi, while central Miyagi and the rest of Iwate look clean. There is no published data for Aomori and Hokkaido yet, but based on the distance and the absence of significant pollution in Akita and adjacent parts of Iwate they will probably be fine.

The maps only give the overall picture, as there may be local hotspots in areas that are relatively clean overall, based on rainfall and wind patterns as well as soil and vegetation that can retain more or less fallout.

Update 2011-12-06:
The ministry has also published radiation maps for Aichi, Aomori, Ishikawa and Fukui prefecture.