Saturday, December 26, 2009

"A slow-moving metorite"

Despite the hurtles in disbelief caused by the Gore debacle, climate change is indeed a reality.

Species will now have to shift a quarter mile a year in order to keep up, according to an Environmental News story.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

WCI #12: The power of garbage

Scientific American says: "Trash is loaded with energy trapped in its chemical bonds. Plasma gasification, a technique that has been in development for decades, could finally be ready to extract it."

Apparently, it's pretty darn easy. Electricity is shot through a gas, which can be simply be ordinary air, and creates plasma. Plasma is superheated ionized gas that can reach temperatures of 7,000 degrees Celsius, hotter than the sun's surface. This is essentially what lightning is, and what researchers are doing is creating lightning in a bottle.

The plasma dissociates the molecular bonds in trash contained in the chamber and organic compounds become something called syngas (CO and hydrodren), the detritus of which is called slag.

The syngas can be used as fuel in a turbine to create electricity or used to create ethanol. The slag can be used for building material, something already being done in France and Japan. Although there are heavy metals in slag, the toxicity passes EPA standards but give pause to communities that may host such a plant.

But every ton of trash processes with plasma reduces the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by two tons less than coal.

Creating energy by eradicating land fills.

What's not to like?

It's sad that some people actually think like this

© Joel Pett

Something to think about

"The destruction of this planet would have no significance on a cosmic scale: to an observer in the Andromeda nebula, the sign of our extinction would be no more than a match flaring for a second in the heavens: and if that match does blaze in the darkness there will be none to mourn a race that used a power that could have lit a beacon in the stars to light its funeral pyre. The choice is ours."
      -- Stanley Kubrick

Monday, December 21, 2009

Natural gas again in the spotlight

The Associated Press has gotten on board.

WCI #11: Saltwater crops

More SciAm wisdom.

"As the world's freshwater supply becomes scarcer and food production needs balloon, salt-tolerant crops could ease the burden. Researchers at Australia's University of Adelaide used genetic engineering to enhance a model crop's natural ability to prevent saline buildup in its leaves, allowing the plant to thrive in conditions that would typically wither it. If the same gene tweak works in cereal crops such as rice and wheat - the researchers are testing them now - fallow lands destroyed by drought of overirrigation could become new breadbaskets."

There's a lot of saltwater out there....

Further, according to Wired:

"Saltwater-loving plants could open up half a million square miles of previously unusable territory for energy crops, helping settle the heated food-versus-fuel debate, which nearly derailed biofuel progress last year.

By increasing the world’s irrigated acreage by 50 percent, saltwater crops could provide a no-guilt source of biomass for alt fuel makers and tone down the rhetoric of U.N. officials worried about food prices, one of whom called the conversion of arable land to biofuel crops "a crime against humanity."

While growing crops in saltwater has been on the fringes of horticulture for decades, the new demand for alternative energy has pushed the idea onto the pages of the nation’s most prestigious scientific journal and drawn the attention of NASA scientists.

Citing the work of Robert Glenn, a plant biologist at the University of Arizona, two biologists argue in this week’s Science that "the increasing demand for agricultural products and the spread of salinity now make this concept worth serious consideration and investment."

Glenn has been arguing for the value of all kinds of saltwater farming to a small but growing audience for nearly thirty years, but it is the demand for biomass to turn into fuel that brought NASA calling. His team’s report for the agency estimates that salt-loving crops could be used to produce 1.5 billion barrels of ethanol annually on a swath of new agricultural land almost five times the size of Texas.

"I’m convinced that saltwater agriculture is going to open up a whole new expanse of land and water for crop production," Glenn said. "Maybe the world hasn’t needed a 50 percent expansion in irrigated agricultural land because we’ve had enough food, but now that biofuels are in the mix, I think it’s the way crop production should go."

The world’s population has grown by five billion people since 1900 to an astounding 6.7 billion today. Despite the population explosion, food production — primarily animal feed and commodity cereals like wheat and rice — has been able to keep pace. But the food system has been severely stressed by a variety of factors, including the increasing use of arable land to grow energy crops to turn into biofuels.

Even if energy crops didn’t cause all or even most of the precipitous rise in food prices in 2007, most social and environmental groups agree that the best location for bioenergy crops would be on currently unusable land. That would ensure that land used to grow food crops in poor countries wasn’t converted to growing energy crops to power cars in developed nations.

A key question has remained, though: where exactly will humans find a whole bunch of unused land that is still good for growing crops?

Photo from

Overly salty land could play a large and previously underappreciated role. That’s because there’s plenty of previously uncultivated territory in the world’s coastal deserts, inland salty soils, and over-salinized agricultural land.

After taking into account environmental protections and other factors, Glenn’s report estimates that 480,000 square miles of unused land around the world could be used to grow a special set of salt-tolerant plants — halophytes. Glenn’s team calculated that this could produce 1.5 billion barrels of oil equivalent per year. That’s 35 percent of the United States’ liquid fuel needs.

Halophytes thrive in saltwater. While salt damages most plants, these salt-loving plants actually use the saltwater to draw in fresh water. In essence, they make themselves saltier than the surrounding water, which, through osmosis, drives fresh water into the plant.

These plants are attractive candidates for both food and fuel because they have very high biomass and oil seed yields. The Science authors note that one leading halophyte-candidate, Salicornia bigelovii, produces 1.7 times more oil per acre than sunflowers, a common source of vegetable oil.

"[Some halophytes] yield even more than things like switchgrass and they’ll be grown on land that’s just not used right now," said Glenn.

Of course, turning halophyte biomass into fuel will require further cost reductions in the production of biofuel from cellulose. Research into cellulosic ethanol continues around the world at a breathtaking pace and many industry observers expect the next five years to yield enough breakthroughs to make the technology economical.

Halophytes could also be part of the solution to another environmental problem: heavily-salinated wastewater from large farms. Right now, that water is dumped into manmade wetlands. For example, in California, the Imperial Valley authorities dump their salty water into the Salton Sea.

"That’s a huge ecological problem waiting to happen," said Glenn.

After absorbing 80 years of agricultural runoff, the Salton Sea is 25 percent saltier than the ocean, and is facing serious ecological problems (see also: my review of a documentary about the Salton Sea). Instead of pumping salinized water into these wetlands, the farms could capture that wastewater and use it to grow halophytes. Already, Sharon Benes, a plant scientist at Fresno State, has been planting test plots in the San Joaquin Valley.

But even if halophytes can help solve some of the world’s environmental problems, Glenn is realistic about the difficulties of changing agricultural systems.

"I started in aquaculture back in the early 70s and we thought, golly, aquaculture is going to save the world. Looking back, it’s been 35 years, but over half of the key fisheries products come from aquaculture, it just took longer than people thought," Glenn said. "I think it’s the same thing with saline crop production."

Citation: "Crops for a Salinized World" by Jelte Rozema and Timothy Flowers. Science, doi 10.1126/science.1168572

Image: Salicornica bigelovii and Salicornica virginica growing in Galveston, Texas. flickr/Anna Armitage"

Another highly useful website

Encyclopedia of Alternative Energy and Sustainable Living.

Make it your Bible.

Great website: Build it solar

"The renewable energy site for do-it-yourselfers," Build it Solar, has hundreds of projects for those wishing to become greener.

They don't sell anything, but they do have everything from helpful hints to full-blown plans to give you a blueprint to a greener future.

Check it out, enjoy and get those synapses firing.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Copenhagen: So what actually happened?

Well, the Copenhagen conference on climate change ended on Saturday and it seems all that was really accomplished was an agreement to meet and discuss things further.

Read the Reuters story here.

It's hard to say how much the Gore number fakery debacle affected the outcome of the meetings at Copenhagen, but at least everyone there agreed that global warming is indeed a reality and something needs to be done.

There was a tentative agreement to limit warming to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial era, but how is anybody's guess.

It seems like everyone just decided to talk more in Mexico, where the 2010 conference will be held. I don't want to disrespect anyone and I realize that this is a situation that affects everyone in subtly different ways (like the third world - economically, they need to develop but most of the tech they can afford is polluting) but I don't understand how Ban Ki-Moon can even call this "an important beginning."

Although I guess that many member nations of the UN agreeing on something just might be a start.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

WCI #10: Ocean Overhaul

Over 2/3 of the planet is covered by water. Environmental arguments are ubiquitous in this day and age, but one thing almost everyone can agree upon is that our oceans are very sorry shape indeed. Just look at the continent-sized ring of trash in the Pacific Ocean.

Many countries are acting to clean up and protect their coasts, but world leaders are proposing further measure. Namely, marine planning and zoning.

It's basically applying urban planning to water. As the SciAm article points out, "porn shops aren't next to preschools... and drilling rigs aren't the centerpieces of national parks."

Basically, various areas of the seas are designated for a specific purpose such as drilling or fishing.

But one of the problems is lack of oversight.

"In the US for example, one body regulates commercial fishing, usually a single species at a time. Another group manages toxic substances, still another mining, and so on - some 20 federal agencies in all. They tend to make decisions without regard to what the others are doing."

The primary obstacle I can see is policing this. There's a lot of ocean out there. But hopefully most companies can be trusted to follow the boundaries simply because there is so much area to work with.

Duke University marine ecologist says, "We have to treat the oceans holistically, not one system at a time."

Friday, December 18, 2009

WCI #9: The new honeybee

From, you guessed it, SciAm:

"Colony collapse disorder (CCD) has killed more than a third of honeybee colonies since 2006. Farmers who depend on bees to pollinate such crops as almonds, peaches and apples are looking to the blue orchard bee to pick up the slack. One efficient Osmia lignaria can pollinate as much territory as 50 honeybees, but the bees are harder to cultivate because of their solitary nature. These pinch hitters won't completely replace honeybees, but as scientists continue to grapple with CCD, they could act as an agricultural safety net."

A Blue Orchard Bee

Thursday, December 17, 2009

WCI #8: Bus Rapid Transit

Scientific American says that bus lines will "mobilize the urban future."

"For the first time in human civilization, more people now live in urban areas than in the countryside. This shift creates a number of dilemmas, not least of which is how to move people withing the world's rapidly growing metropolises. Pollution and traffic point away from carbon-based options, while light-rail systems are slow to construct and prohibitively expensive. One disarmingly simple - and cheap - possibility is Bus Rapid Transit, which is engineered to operate like a subway on wheels. In these systems, concrete dividers on existing roads separate high-capacity buses from the rest of traffic. Riders pay before boarding, then wait in enclosed stations. When a bus arrives, sliding partitions open to allow riders to board from a platform that is level with the bus floor. The traffic-free thoroughfare, quick boarding times, and modern comfortable stations resemble light-rail systems more than the chaos of typical bus travel. In Bogata, Colombia, which has had seven Bus Rapid Transit lines in operation 2001, the buses handle 1.6 million trips a day. Its success has allowed the city to remove 7,000 private buses from the city, reducing consumption of bus fuel and its associated pollution by more than 59 percent."

Bogota's Transmilenio

Now, to make all those buses hybrid or at least low-emission......

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

WCI #7: Delivering the US from oil

According to December's Scientific American "Plug-in Hybrid Trucks are improving the long view of the short haul."

The ubiquitous cargo trucks that haul everything from mail to produce use about 40 percent of the fuel consumed in the US every year. Many are looking to use vehicles with better fuel efficiency, but a major technological opportunity is being overlooked by most.

"The fuel use of even a small truck is equal to many, many car," says Bill Van (heh) Amberg, senior VP of Calstart, a clean transportation technology nonprofit and director of the Hybrid Truck Users Forum. "A utility truck as a hybrid would reduce more petroleum than nine Priuses."

The article states: "Some 1,300 commercial hybrids on the toad today get up to twice the fuel efficiency of their conventional counterparts. But these traditional hybrids are inherently limited. They make more efficient use of petroleum-based fuel by capturing some of the energy lost during braking.

"Plug-in hybrids, on the other hand, draw energy from the grid. They can drive for miles - in many cases, an entire day's route - without using any fossil fuel at all. This shifts energy demand away from petroleum and toward grid-based sources."

This still leads to carbon usage, as many electrical plants are still coal burners, but last year 30 percent of electric power was supplied by nuclear and other zero-carbon renewables and with more and more responsible companies shifting their paradigm, this number is sure to grow.

Using plug-in hybrid technology for such vehicles just makes common sense in many ways.

"A cargo truck runs a short daily route that includes many stops to aid in regenerative braking. Most of the US Postal Service's 200,000-plus mail trucks, for example, travel fewer than 20 miles a day. In addition, fleet vehicles return nightly to storage lots that have ready access to the 120- or 240-volt outlets required to charge them."

The Department of Energy has recently launched a massive, $45.4 million project to put near ly 400 medium-duty plug-in hybrid trucks on the road in 50 municipalities and utilities. They are working with Ford using the auto-makers F-550 chassis. They will be running in 2011.

Start-up Bright Automotive is going even further, planning to replace 50,000 conventional trucks by 2014. Their prototype, called IDEA, travels 40 miles on battery power, then switches to a four-cylinder engine that manages an eco-friendly 40 mpg. The truck is streamlined and more aerodynamic than most on the road today and only weighs as much as a mid-sized sedan.

Even with the appeal of carbon savings, the vehicles offer a far more practical benefit. Once battery technology improves the price will make it almost idiotic to not have one.

It won't take long for the vehicles to become the economic choice.

As David Lauzman, Brights VP of product development projects, people will soon be saying, "I have to have them because it saves me money."

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

WCI #6: Cement as a carbon sponge

From SciAm:

"Traditional cement production creates at least five percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, but new materials could create carbon-neutral cement. Start-up Novacem, supported by Imperial College London, uses magnesium oxide to make cement that naturally absorbs CO2 as it hardens. California-based Calera uses seawater to sequester carbon emissions from a nearby power plant in cement."

Monday, December 14, 2009

WCI #5: Wind power from the stratosphere

The fifth installment of new ideas from Scientific American:

"According to a Stanford University study released in July, the high-altitude winds that constantly blow tens of thousands of feet above the earth hold enough energy to supply all of human civilization 100 times over. California's Sky WindPower has proposed harvesting this energy by building fleets of airborne, ground-tethered windmills (below), while Italy's Kite Gen proposes to accomplish the same feat using kites."

One would hope they are taking flight plans into account.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Taiwan firm recycling newspapers into fashion.

Taiwanese fashion designer Colin Lin is environmentally conscious as well as fashionably forward-thinking.

NPR has the story here.

WCI #4: Save energy with information

From SciAm:

"Studies show that simply making customers aware of their energy use lowers it by 5 to 15 percent. Smart meters allow customers to track their energy consumption minute by minute and appliance by appliance. Countless start-ups are offering the devices, and Google and Microsoft are independently partnering with local utilities to allow individuals to monitor their power usage over the web."

Maybe a little anal, but every little bit helps, right?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Daily Show exposes skeptics' math

OK, so Gore's scientists tweaked some numbers.

A). They are not the only scientists researching the disastrous phenomenon.

B). Let's examine the math of the denialists:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Gretchen Carlson Dumbs Down
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

Oh, and Gretchen Carlson's hypocrisy and downright insulting disingenuousness.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

WCI #3: Hot Nukes

According to SciAm:

"Uranium and Plutonium ar not the only fuels that can power a nuclear reactor. With an initial kick from more traditional fissile materials, thorium can set up a self-sustaining "breeder" reaction that produces uranium 233, which is well suited to nuclear power generation. The process has the added benefit of being resistant to nuclear proliferation, because its end products emit enough gamma rays to make the fuel dangerous to handle and easy to track."

With Copenhagen and the EPA announcing the danger of CO2 and governments taking steps to reduce dirty power plants, nuclear power is the most tested and efficient way to produce energy without sending electric bills through the roof.

Until we perfect solar and all the other natural energy producing methods, that is. As safe as nuclear power has become, there's still room for mistakes. With more natural methods, the biggest disaster would be lack of power.

Friday, December 4, 2009

WCI #2: Affordable solar energy equipment

Yes, we all receive light and heat from the sun free of charge, but the cost of converting that energy into electricity that can run our televisions, computers and video game systems as well as charging all of our on-the-go devices has up to now been almost prohibitively expensive.

According to the Scientific American article "The No-Money-Down Solar Plan," "Installing a rooftop array of solar panels large enough to to produce all the energy required by a building is the equivalent of prepaying an electric bill for the next seven to 10 years - and that's after federal and state incentives."

Some companies have come up with a solution: provide the panels free of charge, then bill the customer for power as it is used. Even though the consumer still has a monthly fee, solar power would be cheaper by the kilowatt-hour than grid-provided electricity as well as offering a negligible carbon footprint.

As SolarCity co-founder Peter Rive puts it, " This is a way to get solar without putting any money down and to start saving money from day one. That's a first."

SolarCity is the largest installer of household solar panels to undertake the system. They lease the panels to customers but there is no charge for the power produced. The overall effect is a highly reduced monthly bill because when the sun isn't out, customers still need utility-provided electricity. The total of the monthly lease and power bill is lower than a pre-panel power bill alone.

Berkeley and Boulder have taken similar strides. Using municipal bonds, they give out loans to residents who want to buy and install solar panels and the city is paid back over the course of 20 years via the homeowners property tax bill. This, again, still winds up costing less than a traditional utility bill.

Using Berkeley as a model, 10 states have already adopted similar programs even though the example is only two years old. And with the Waxman-Markey climate bill passing, the option for cities to do so would become federal law.

Although to current cost of solar panels is still high, it is dropping and forecasters predict grid parity within the next decade (meaning creating enough solar panels to energize the same amount of homes and businesses would cost the same as systems still in place).

But with fossil fuels increasing 3 to 5 percent a year over the last decade and the cost of solar panels falling by 20 percent each time its insulation base doubles, it seems it's only a matter of time before even the most conservative of homeowners will see the advantage of solar.

If you can't make them care about the environment, hit them in the spot they most certainly do care about: their wallet.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

WCI #1: The Gasoline Garden

The next advance in biofuels will be plant life genetically engineered to produce hydrocarbons in addition to its normal function. Using only CO2 and sunlight, the plants will produce fuel, even gasoline. Exxon Mobil has announced that it will spend over $600 pursuing algae that can do just that.

In addition, according to the article, "Joule Biotechnologies claims to have already succeeded, although the company has yet to reveal any details of its proprietary system."

Though the whole climate change phenomenon has apparently been debunked (I'm not completely buying that just yet - the empirical evidence is still too prevalent) let's hope this gasoline will be used in engines designed to have lower emissions.

Whether global warming is a hoax or not, pollution is still pollution.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

From SciAm: 20 World-Changing ideas

A sizable chunk of the December issue of Scientific American is devoted to progressive concepts aimed at making the world a better place.

It includes new advances in energy, transportation, environment, electronics and medicine.

I will be counting them down for you all month long, you lucky ducks. All entries will be entitled WCIs (World-Changing Ideas) with a number.

But not right now 'cuz I'm exhausted and want sleep.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Power transformers, pt. 2: James D. McCalley, electrical and computer engineer, Iowa State University

The Concept: Energy systems analysis

While the energy industry is facing a crisis in the present, the future holds even more conundrums unless they are addressed now.

McCalley is working on computer models to "plan the mix of technologies, the means of distribution and the environmental impact of our energy supply 40 years out."

Meaning he is looking ahead to 2050 right now by researching "optimal energy flow patterns, indentifying infrastructure enhancements to realize the optimal performance and forecasting the influence of the market on energy supply and demand."

His equations include the good stuff: solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear and clean fossil fuels.

He may need to concentrate on the first four as the final one may literally go the way of the dodo by the end of the century. Maybe he should look more closely at biofuels but he idea is sound.

Maybe pre-efficiency will (it certainly should) become the new energy buzzword.