The Bear Necessities

If you would be wealthy, think of saving as well as getting.
Benjamin Franklin

When I was younger, my parents would read to me before I went to bed.  I would hear tales of adventure and science from Tom Swift, Jr. and tales of mystery from the Hardy Boys, and the fantastical from The Hobbit.  They would also read the Berenstain Bears to me.  If you’re unfamiliar with this series, it’s about a family of bears that face situations that are likely to be faced by children and parents.  The Bear family consists of Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Brother Bear, Sister Bear, and, since 2000, Honey Bear.  There have been more than 260 books in the series.  In the books, Brother and Sister bear learn many valuable lessons, like what happens when you watch too much TV (The Berenstain Bears and Too Much TV), eat to much junk food (The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junkfood) (hurmmm American public), or about earning and saving money (Wall Street)… I mean Trouble with Money.

The one that made a lasting impression on me was The Messy Room (da, da, daa).  In that book, Brother and Sister have a messy room and can never find anything (they even forget that they have some things) and their parents come up with an idea for storage.  Clearly labeled boxes stacked in the closet.  And then their room is clean (I’m still working on it myself, is it messy if I know what’s in all the piles?).

The current (that pun again) electrical infrastructure is like that messy room.

Wind Energy
Creative Commons License photo credit: l.bailey_beverley

The current electrical grid operates on a “use or lose” bias.  Meaning that only the amount of electricity needed at any given moment is on the grid.  If an energy source, like a wind turbine in West, Texas produces more electricity than the grid can use, it is bled off as waste.  If the amount of electricity needed increases, then short start up generators go online and once the demand is over they shut back down.  That strikes me as a very dumb grid.

One of the large hurtles in making a smarter grid is electrical storage.  We are all used to some forms of electrical storage.  We have alkaline batteries lying about our houses (except AA, I can never find any, but I’m sure they’re just over there…).  These work by producing electricity through the reaction of zinc and magnesium dioxide. They make up 80% of the batteries in the United States.  People have also gotten familiar with the lithium ion batteries which are found in most mp3 players and some phones. Lithium ion batteries are rechargeable, but through many recharges slowly loose the ability to hold a charge.  Lithium sodium batteries are in the works that can hold more energy and be a little less expensive.  One way to get batteries for your home is to get the old batteries from your hybrid car.

Chemical batteries are not the only way to store electricity.

Engine & Flywheel
Creative Commons License photo credit: Howard Dickins

Another way is to store the energy as compressed air.  The excess electricity is used to compress air, and when the electricity is needed the air is let out and turns a turbine.  Compressed air has been used for energy since the 1870s in Paris, London, and other cities. Another way to store electricity is the use of fly wheels.  The excess electricity is used to power up a rotor in a spinning motion.  When electricity is needed, the movement of the rotor is converted back into electricity. The new Gerald Ford class super aircraft carriers will make use of flywheels to help launch planes.  One of the main technical concerns is friction.  Too much friction and too much energy is lost. One of the most efficient ways to store up electrical power on the large scale is pumped water. The excess electricity is used to pump water up in a holding chamber or reservoir.  Then when electricity is needed, the water flows back down.

Electrical storage is also important for renewables.  Solar power can be unreliable.  Because of the rotation of the earth, solar power can be reliably unreliable.  Solar power can only be gathered when the sun is out.  Most of the time the sun is out, I’m at work.  There are usually only a few days a week when I get to see the sun.  Therefore, most of my electrical needs happen when solar power is not an option.  If I had a way to store it while I was at work, then I would use it when I got home. The same is true for wind.  Despite the United States being full of hot air, wind does not always blow.  Wind generated electricity can sometimes be too much for the electrical grid.  If the excess were stored, it could be used when there’s no wind a blowin’.

Small scale electrical storage would also help small scale renewables.

If I have a small scale solar panel, a small wind turbine, and a small water pump all tied up with some sort of electrical storage, I can take the electricity I gather in and only use it when I need it.  That way if the sun shines, the wind blows, or the rain falls while I’m away, I can come back and have Mother Nature power my computer.

Oil Spills and their Impact on the Environment

Today’s Guest Blogger is Wes Tunnel, Ph.D. , marine biologist who has studied oil spills and their impact on the environment. For over 40 years he has helped develop the National Spill Control School. Dr. Tunnell, is Associate Curator of Malacology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and Associate Director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies and Professor at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Dr.

Studying oil spills is not something many scientists do as a planned area of study for their advanced degree. Unless they are at a university near a major spill, they likely will not get engaged in studying oil spills unless one happens “in their back yard.”

That is exactly what happened to me early in my career as a marine scientist, and it is what happened to many scientists across the northern Gulf of Mexico last year (2010) with the Deepwater Horizon/Macondo spill.

Gulf Coast Oil Spill

I first had the opportunity to start learning about oil spills and their effect on the environment in the mid-1970s when our university received a grant to develop the first oil spill training program in the United States.

It took about two years of gathering information and interviewing people for the leaders of this program to establish the National Spill Control School at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (then called Texas A&I University at Corpus Christi). The week-long classes established for the School included specialists lecturing on the biological, chemical, and physical aspects of oil and its impact on the environment, and it also covered aspects of policy, law, social impacts, clean up techniques and strategies, and a whole realm of related topics. Attendees would see newly created movies, as well as vintage ones of previous oil spills, and they would get field experience in working with booms, skimmers, and other clean up techniques.

However, for me, this was all just book learning, and I had always been a proponent of hands-on, field oriented biology for the best understanding of any topic.

Well, on June 3, 1979, when the Ixtoc I oil well blew out in the southern Gulf of Mexico, it looked like I might get that chance. By early August, the predicted 60-day movement of oil proved true as South Texas beaches were coated for over 150 miles between the mouth of the Rio Grande to north of Port Aransas. The oil ranged from 5 to 10 yards in width and 3 to 15 inches in thickness along this entire stretch of coast. It was sickening, and I thought our beloved beaches would be ruined forever.

Working with funding from NOAA, we ran 13 transects along the length of Padre Island from Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande.

These extended from the third sandbar offshore to the upper extent of the intertidal zone. Since we knew the oil was coming, which often is not the case, we were able to do pre-spill samples before the oil arrived and then post-spill samples after it arrived.

In general, we found reductions in numbers of organisms (not numbers of species) by 80% in the intertidal zone (area where the waves wash the shore) and 50% in the subtidal zone (offshore bar and trough zone, where the waves are breaking). Although this news was devastating at first, we were pleased to find out that the beaches had recovered fully in about 2.5-3 years. A combination of fast weathering of oil (biological, chemical, and physical break down of oil) and fast reproductive abilities of most beach organisms allowed for this quick recovery.

John W. Tunnell, Jr. Ph.D.

Although this story of impact and recovery is much more complex than what is related here, we did not have sufficient funds to track the exact timing or impact, since research funds were cut off. This is typical of many large spills, so we don’t have the kind of information to answer many of the question that were flying last summer. The commitment of BP to fund the Gulf Research Initiative at $500 million total, or $50 million per year, over the next 10 years should greatly help our knowledge of dealing with and understanding future spills. Funding from NSF, NOAA, EPA, and other federal and state agencies should add to this knowledge also.

Learn more on oil spills and their impact on the marine environment from Dr. Wes Tunnel at his lecture on Monday, August 29 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Flickr Photo of the Month: Trappings of Yingpan Man [Dec. 2010]

Trappings of Yingpan Man. 3rd - 4th century
Trappings of Yingpan Man. 3rd – 4th century by cybertoad, on Flickr.
Posted here with permission.

There are some amazing photographers that wander the halls of HMNS, and when we’re lucky, they share what they capture in our HMNS Flickr pool. This month, we’re re-starting a series where we’ll share one of these photos on the blog each month.

Elaine (cybertoad on Flickr) took this photo during a Flickr meetup in our current Secrets of the Silk Road exhibition. From the photographer:

The Beauty of Xioahe may have been the exhibit’s celebrity but the Yingpan Man still captured me. His simple funerary mask with the delicately painted eyebrows and the gold leaf evoke a sense of elegance and peace that I hope he carried with him into the after life.

Inspired? Most of the Museum’s galleries are open for photography, and we’d love for you to share your shots with us on Flickr, Facebook or Twitter. Check out the HMNS photo policy for guidelines.

Photography is prohibited in this exhibition during general hours. If you’d like to join one of our Flickr meetups, check out our Flickr group Discussions page for updates on upcoming events.

Want to see Yingpan Man for yourself? Secrets of the Silk Road is only on display for a few more weeks!