Science Doesn’t Sleep (8.20.08)

Highway One
Creative Commons License photo credit: billaday

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

With dead zones expanding and a growing continent of plastic – is it too late to save the ocean?

It’s coming! Here’s an update on CERN’s progress as we countdown to the big day (they throw the switch Sept. 10.)

Shipwrecks: not just bad for the boat. New evidence suggests that coral reefs are victims, too.

Shocker: the current mass extinction may not be the only one humans are responsible for.

Japan has mandated that products are printed with information about their carbon footprint. Will people pay attention?

A Chicago man recently passed a tapeworm. A tapeworm that’s taller than he is.

All hail the underdog: the Olympics are full of elite athletes who science says shouldn’t be the best.

Paul’s Fourth of July Picnic Piñata

A Smörgåsbord of Alternative Energy Treats à la Carte Sure to Set Off Some Fireworks!

Creative Commons License photo credit: Sarah Camp

Independence Day is here, and it’s time to fire up the grill with a few tasty bites from the overflowing pantry of alternative energy. For an appetizer, dig into some ocean algae that may one day soon be a superior producer of biofuels, at least according to researchers from Kansas State University. Well, don’t actually eat them, because they are probably not too tasty, and that’s good news, because using algae to make fuel could leave more corn (that would otherwise be used for biofuels) on the market for much-needed food supplies.

Another way to use tiny living things to make energy for us is to let microbes turn hard-to-reach oil into easier-to-extract natural gas. That is the goal of a group of Canadian and British scientists. If their research goes well, injecting microorganisms into wells formerly deemed depleted could renew production. And when will this exciting development get those gasoline prices below $4 a gallon again? Well, let’s see, the original biological process took tens of millions of years, so….

previous ms
Creative Commons License photo credit: atomic0x

What better way to have fun in the sun on Independence Day than with a solar powered car. A group of students from Iowa State University are planning to compete in 2,400-mile race from Texas to Canada in a $400,000 sun-powered vehicle that looks like a souped-up ping-pong table-but hey, that’s a zero emissions ping-pong table that can cruise at over 30 miles per hour. More (solar) power to them!

You may one day declare your independence from less efficient chemical batteries to power your stuff as fuel cells become more efficient. Researchers in Germany are working with carbon nanotubes to make components for fuels cells that are ten times lighter and weight far less than conventional amorphous carbon structures used now. Even more impressive, these tiny-only several atoms thick-tubes boast 1000 times the electrical conductivity of their conventional counterparts.

For something a little more practical for you, the average American celebrating the quintessential summer holiday, you can get your very own fuel-cell-powered car and its solar-powered hydrogen production plant (which makes fresh fuel for the fuel cell)-and the whole package is only $99.99! Well, the model car is only about six inches long, but the science is real-and very cool. You’re sure to be the hit of the picnic.

Creative Commons License photo credit: s2art

As the warm July breezes whisk away your paper plates and blow that BBQ smoke right back in your face, rather than complain about the weather, celebrate the fact that Texas has the fastest-growing wind power industry in the USA. An ultra-clean, and only somewhat noisy, wind turbine-or a whole farm of them-may soon be coming to a desolate hilltop near you. The question is, “What’s the next big thing in Texas energy?” and the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. Big time oilman T. Boone Pickens is betting $10 billion on that.

Another hot topic (aren’t they all?) for this hot month is geothermal energy-producing steam with the natural heat from the earth’s interior. I just got back from Iceland, where that clean and renewable source provides 90% of home heating energy-and allows for really long hot showers. Here in the US, we could supply the electrical needs for over 260 million Americans if we tapped in to only 5% of the geothermal potential available in our own underground. There are plenty of challenges to make this work, but you can bet that as hydrocarbon prices soar, those obstacles won’t seem quite so big.

As that sweet smelling smoke from the wieners and burgers on the grill wafts into the upper atmosphere, don’t overlook the contribution that it adds to your carbon footprint, and how that footprint contributes to global warming and climate change. Scientists are realizing just how hard it is for individuals to influence those numbers significantly-even the austere lifestyle of a Buddhist monk produces about 1/3 the carbon emissions of a typical energy-hungry American. So do we just give up? Of course not-we need to think more about alternatives already mentioned here-and walk more. The person who comes up with the carbon-free barbecue that still delivers that smoky flavor might be up for a Nobel Prize, at least in my book.

When you finally get back to the crib, your belly full of beef (or veggie burgers) and your eyes glazed from too many red, white and blue exploding chrysanthemums and Catherine wheels, you can settle back into your chair and read up on more energy topics the old-fashioned way-by the cozy glow of a zero-emissions gravity-powered lamp. Now, that’s a down-to-earth solution!

Happy Fourth of July!

A Greener Life

A study by a group of students at MIT tells us that if you think you are doing your part to reduce global warming, think again. 

Bill Gates - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2008
Creative Commons License photo credit: World
Economic Forum

The students interviewed people from many walks of life and concluded that there is a threshold energy use that no one in the US can avoid, whether they are a homeless person or Bill Gates.  They found that there are many aspects of the infrastructure of our American life – other than transportation and electricity usage that we may not be examining when trying to conserve energy, such as the products and services we use and how they are created and transported, the food we eat and how it is processed,  government services such as road construction and maintenance,  what products we import, how our clothes are made, how hospitals and other services are run.

Individual households use about 1/5 of US energy consumption.  The other 4/5 is used by industry, and government.

The implication of the article is that there is nothing we can do about this threshold.  I think this assumption must be examined, as it denigrates the power of democracy. We do have impact on what our government does and how it regulates business and our lives, but most people don’t know how or have enough interest to care,  because our lives are so comfortable.

Creative Commons License photo credit: PBoGS

The first step in participating in the decision making in our country is education.  Back to Civics 101.

Where do we learn about energy? If you are a beginner, the easiest information is on children’s energy education Web sites.   

In the news media we learn that all levels of our US government are carrying out initiatives to reduce our carbon footprint. An example is the recent Houston City Council passage of green building codes for commercial buildings.

The US Green Building Council is a non-government, non-profit group of organizations in the building industry who have established principles for building which are environmentally and socially responsible.  “LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a voluntary, consensus-based national rating system for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings.”

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy sponsor an energy efficiency program called Energy Star.

Energy at dusk
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ryan McD

The goal is to find ways to contribute to bettering our carbon footprint. You can come to the Wiess Energy Hall and learn all about petroleum and alternative energies so that you have the knowledge you need when you participate in conservation, efficiency, safety and pollution programs.

So yes,  the US uses a huge amount of energy,  but we can do more than just produce hot air criticizing.  We can learn and then take action  – not just in our daily lives,  but in the efforts of the entire nation.

Watch for more about energy efficiency and conservation in future posts to our energy blog.

A Steamy Discussion

The Department of Energy came to the Houston Museum of Natural Science last week to gather input from people in the energy field on how to spend millions of dollars given to them by Congress for the research and development of EGS or Enhanced (engineered) Geothermal Systems. Information is based on a study done at MIT.

After looking at a lot of writing and graphs that I STILL can’t comprehend, I at least get the point that there is a lot of geothermal energy on this continent which can be utilized to relieve our dependence on fossil fuels and thus – ultimate goal – slow the destruction of our only livable planet.

Advantages of geothermal energy:

It’s everywhere if you go deep enough into the earth.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Ross_Goodman

Wind Turbines are not a continous
source of energy, as they depend on
constant wind to keep them running

It’s continuous, unlike the wind which takes a break occasionally or the sun, which is often hidden. I did learn that a form of energy that is continuous is called a BASE LOAD RESOURCE, verses wind or solar energy which is dependent on the elements.

It doesn’t have to be stored.

It has very little negative visual or environmental impart.

It has a small carbon footprint.

It won’t run out, at least while the core of the earth is molten radioactive heat.

Cost is reasonable (4-8 cents a kWh) and cost competitive with other fuel. If there was a carbon tax to gas and coal, the cost of geothermal energy is even more viable.

La Dordogne / The Dordogne
Creative Commons License photo credit: bestfor

Currently, the negative effects of
harvesting geothermal are unknown


Unknown environmental impact – some of the funds from Congress will be used to investigate the unknown impacts of geothermal energy such as ground water, land subsidence effects of water injection, air pollution, noise, safety and land use.

I admire these geothermal experts for asking for input from people all across the energy field. They are excited about the prospects of advancing a resource which has been grossly under utilized and has the potential to provide energy relief in the future. Keep your eye out for advancements in this field.