How a slimy green sludge can fuel your life: Learn more at Energy Field Trip Week!

What’s slimy, green, good for your health, and will provide your car with fuel? Nope, its not Slimer. It’s algae.

Algae is a simple plant that can range in size from microscopic, single-cell simple plants to 65-foot-long giant seaweed. Most algae use photosynthesis to produce energy (i.e. light and carbon dioxide to make energy and oxygen). Algae can be grown in brackish and waste water where other plants would not grow.

From looking at algae — a colorful, slimy mess — you might not think that it has as many uses as it does. Millions of people eat it every day. If you have a seaweed salad or raw fish wrapped in seaweed, you’re eating algae. Next time you’re having a dairy product, check to see if it has any carrageenan in it. Carrageenan comes from algae. And when’s the last time you’ve been to a spa? It’s probably been too long, but if you like those seaweed body wraps, that’s algae again. For more than six centuries algae has been used as a fertilizer.

Laurencia, a genus of red algae from Hawaii

It’s fair to say we’ve established that algae is a useful substance, but what about using it to fuel your car?

There are a few different types fuel you can turn algae into. You can grow it and ferment it and make fuel ethanol out of it. You could take the algae and, using a similar process as with vegetable oil, turn it into biodiesel. You can even put that algae through a pyrolysis  process and turn it into an oil-like substance that can be refined into gasoline. After all, gasoline and diesel are made of 100-million-year-old algae. Why not use the current stuff?

If algae is so easy to make into fuel, why aren’t they already doing it?  In fact, we already are. Many companies and universities have algae farms that are producing fuel. The National Algae Association, based here in Houston, is working with industries and universities to help bring down the cost of algae-based oil. And it’s not just adults that are working on this. A high-school student was working on ways to breed algae to be more oil-rich. While this wonderful technology will not be able to replace all crude oil use, in the next five to 10 years, be on the lookout for it to become economic enough to start taking percentages off our crude oil and help lead us to energy security.

Teachers, if you’re curious about what an algae test facility looks like, come join us this summer for our Summer Energy Field Trip Week. For more information click here!

The road to self-sufficiency: How cities are transitioning to renewable energy — and how Houston can, too

What would it take to go all renewable?

What would it take to use exclusively renewable energy resources? What would you have to add to or take away from your home? How would your life change? For most of my energy entries, I’ve talked about conservation at the individual level. That’s because I know we can make changes in what we do and how we view the world. However, it is always heartening to see large groups take up the challenge. And while a nation should have a plan, unless its citizens are behind it, it will never work.

That’s why I’m glad to report on some cities and regions that have made a plan to go to 100-precent renewable energy or beyond.

The District of Rhein-Hunsrück in Germany has a population of about 100,000. It uses a combination of wind, solar, and bio mass to produce 100-percent renewable energy for its area.

For most, that would be a good place to stop. But it has plans to increase renewable energy production to 828 percent of their needs by 2050 so it can export the energy to its  neighbors. (Well done!)

In the 1990s, it decided that it would take the money it used to import energy and invest it locally to become energy exporters. Its first step was energy conservation. Just by doing some energy conservation in its buildings, it was able to cut heating needs by 25 percent (something that is very energy-intensive in places that have weather other than “hot”).

German wind power

The city of Dardesheim, also in Germany, uses solar panels, wind turbines, and biomass to produce 40 times as much energy as it uses. How did it do this? Back in the 1990s (it takes time) the community decided on a shared vision to create jobs and eliminate the importation of energy. While it only has a population of 1,000 (100 times smaller than  Rhein-Hunsrück), it created a vision and made a plan.

And it isn’t only cities in Germany that are coming up with a renewable and sustainable path for their energy future.

For example, it’s expensive to import oil to the Island of El Hierro, off the northern coast of Africa. To replace the oil it uses to generate electricity, it will move to a combination of wind, hydro, and solar power. With any excess wind energy, it’ll be able to pump water uphill into an inactive volcano crater. This gives it a little energy storage. This will let the 10,000 people who live on the island save 40,000 barrels of oil a year.

But what about a little closer to home?

In 2007 San José, Calif., pledged to become a renewable-powered city by 2022. It was the first large city in the United States (around 1 million in population) to make such a pledge. Its plan had 10 points (not 12). It also has a website where you can view its progress. While it has had the most progress in diverting trash from landfills to waste to energy plants, it has made the least progress is in planting new trees. Fortunately, that’s fairly easy to do.

But what about Houston? What is Houston doing?

Houston is becoming greener in leaps and bounds. Houston has been granted a number of awards and distinctions for its green programing, such as being named one of the top 25 solar cities by the Department of Energy, the Green Power Leadership award from the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Best Workplace for Commuters award from the Houston-Galveston Area Council, with the EPA and the Department of Transportation.

Sure, while it’s good to toot our own horns, we should not rest on our laurels. There is an initiative (and funding) to help income-qualified Houstonians weatherize their homes. We have free, regular electronic recycling and paper shredding programs to reduce waste. While Houston is making strides, we should remember not to be too self-satisfied with what we’ve done.  Rather, we should dream bigger and dare more boldly.

What should Houston do next?

Be trashy: How waste-to-energy could help fuel America

Power Grid is one of my favorite games — but almost all of you have no idea what I’m talking about.

OK, so, Power Grid is a German board game where you compete with other people to create the power grid inside Germany. To do this, you buy different types of power plants — wind and solar, coal, oil, trash, or nuclear. You pay for the right to provide a city with power and pay for the connection fees between cities. You also have to purchase fuel for the power plants to use. It’s an exciting game as you balance the efficiency of your plants, the size of your territory, the number of cities you can power, and your fuel reserves. All the while, three to five other players are competing with you for all the same things.

Power Grid

As with most games, I accepted the rules and devices that the game used without thinking of them in real, tangible terms. When my armies are marching through Kamchatka, I don’t think of it as a real place. Nor do I when I try to build enough corrals for my pigs and sheep. But the Wiess Energy Hall  has got me thinking about the power grid in real terms.

I know that Germany is exiting the nuclear market and that they are the second, after the United States, in wind power. But I had not thought of the trash plants as using actual trash for power generation. Using waste to produce energy is surprisingly popular in Europe.

There are more than 400 waste-to-energy plants across Europe. Some countries and cities have gotten so good at using waste to power and heat homes, that they import garbage from the rest of the continent. In Oslo, the capital of Norway, trash is imported from England, Ireland, and even Italy to make up for the short-fall in waste production. Given the size of landfills in America, it seems silly to talk about a city that can’t make enough trash for itself.

The United States operates only about a fourth of waste-to-energy plants that Europe does and produces about 14,000 gigawatts of electricity a year (about the same as geothermal energy). Less then half the states even have waste-to-energy plants. In many states, waste-to-energy is not counted as a renewable energy because it should not be renewable and its not carbon neutral.

Should we be using waste-to-energy? On the one hand we do have a lot of waste. You produce an average of 4 pounds of garbage a day. That’s almost a ton a year, which means that the United States produces about 4 trillion pounds of trash each year. We also have a large energy need. However, depending on what they burn, waste-to-energy plants can produce nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, and even mercury.  But waste-to-energy plants do produce far less methane than letting all that trash sit there in a landfill. Can the harmful gases be scrubbed out and not released?  Yes, but this increases the cost of the plant and then you have to store those excess chemicals. One of the hidden costs of waste-to-energy is the assumption that we will continue to produce waste. While we will always produce some, we should be striving to recycle and reuse more and more.

So should we have more of waste-to-energy plants in the United States? Do the benefits outweigh the cost? Both sides have good points, and it would be nice to do something with all that trash we have sitting around. Should we export our trash to Europe? We have a commodity that they need, but what would happen if a ship full of trash went down? What we should do is realize that all that trash we produce might get a second chance as energy if policies, economics, environmental safety and will are aligned.

What do HMNS, Superman, Stargate and steampunk have in common? Find out on May 25 at Comicpalooza

If you’ve been to the Wiess Energy Hall recently, you’ll remember the energy music video that starts off with “Energy is all around us.” Energy is all around us. It’s in the news every day. It’s also a prominent feature in sci-fi, comics and steampunk.

For more than 45 years, we’ve had a certain Scottish engineer talk about the need to power his engines. The mighty Starship Enterprise was propelled across the galaxy by warping space around it using a matter-antimatter reaction. (Antimatter has the same mass as matter but is oppositely charged — positron to electron and antiproton to proton).

We currently use antimatter in Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans. While an antimatter reaction can give us 9×10^16 J/kg (note: dynamite is about 4.6×10^6 J/kg and a nuclear reactor is 5.6 x 10^9 J/kg ), it’s hard to bring into existence and even harder to keep around. In 2011, CERN was able to get about 300 anti-hydrogen atoms to hang around for about 17 minutes. While far less time than Dan Brown had it around for, it’s still a great achievement — especially since you can’t hold antimatter in a container made only of matter. You have to use a combination of electric and magnetic fields to make sure it does not go “boom.” NASA is looking into this as a propulsion system for interstellar transportation (possibly because rocket scientists grew up watching Star Trek), but it’s still far in the future.

Some of us have a fond memory of Rodney McKay yelling about the zero point module (ZPM) not having enough power to protect the city for long. (If you just got that reference, smile, because you are a nerd.) To get even more nerdy, there is such a thing as zero point energy. It is the least amount of energy a quantum system may have, or the energy produced when all is at rest. This is because of the wave-like properties of matter.  It’s also the reason that liquid helium will not freeze.

Is there a way to harvest all this background energy? Unfortunately, not yet. Because of the zero point in the minimum amount of energy the system can have, if you were able to take it away, the amount of energy would drop below its limits. In Stargate, they get around this by containing microuniverses in a handheld containment vessel and harvest the zero point energy from them (what happens when the ZPM runs out of energy? Is that universe dead?).

Sooper dpoper man

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no, it’s a solar-powered man!

Superman, one of the most iconic and archetypal characters, receives his power from our yellow sun (and in Miller’s Batman Returns, he can take it from sunflowers as well). Because he uses green fuel, he can lift cars, leap buildings, be directed by Zack Snyder, and get Amy Adams. If only this were true for everyone who goes green. *Sigh.*

It is nice to have a superhero, even from the ’40s, that is looking toward the eventual infrastructure shift to renewables. Just as Superman’s war against falsehood and injustice has yet to be completed, we still have to wait for the switch. Unlike fighting against Doomsday and General Zod, we can do things to help speed the switch over to renewables.The easiest thing is to use less energy. If you’re more adventurous, you could look into the tax rebate programs for buying solar panels.

Steampunk is perhaps the most focused on energy. It’s in their very name. “Steampunk” is a sub genre that focuses on having mechanisms only powered by steam. While most steampunks look back either to Victorian times (call ‘em Vickies) or to the post-apocalypse, we are still in a steam age.

Almost all of our electricity is steam-powered. Coal, natural gas plants, and nuclear power plants all create electricity by turning water into steam and having that steam turn a piece of metal around a magnet (albeit on a large scale).

It can be exciting to see how you would come up with a steam driven alternative to a lot of modern technology. How would you construct a large airliner if it has no electronics and could only rely on hydraulics? Personally, I always hope for a dirigible-like air ship in which to battle sky pirates, but that may just be me.

An institution that you may readily associate with both a comic convention and energy is the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Museums may have a reputation of being dusty old cabinets of curiosities, but not us. So drop by our booth at Comicpalooza on May 25 and see what we’re up to.