Bananas and Earthworms -Oh Boy

Invasive species come in all varieties, warm-blooded and cold-blooded animals, all kinds of plants, even fungi. Some are notable but cause little problems – armadillos, some are notable and troublesome – feral hogs, and some you never see but are dangerous – infectious bacteria and viruses in some biting insects.

Whenever a species is introduced to a non-native environment there can be negative consequences, earthworms for example. The last ice age covered North America as far south as southern Illinois. Any native earthworms would have been wiped out. After the glaciers receded, the upper midwest evolved for thousands of years without earthworms. Much later, that locale was populated with earthworms by incidental introduction from colonial ships from Europe. Rock and dirt used as ballast and dumped onshore was the likely method of introduction.

Generally speaking, worms are good as they churn and aerate the soil. But there is a dark side. Portions of hardwood forests in Minnesota and boreal forests in Canada have been negatively impacted by invasive earthworms. Fallen leaves accumulate on the forest floor and create a rich organic layer called duff. This duff layer is the natural growing environment for native woodland wildflowers. It also provides habitat for ground-dwelling animals and helps prevent soil erosion – basically natural mulch. When earthworms are present however they eat this leaf litter. In areas heavily infested by earthworms, soil erosion and leaching of nutrients may reduce the productivity of forest and even degrade fish habitat. Many tree seedlings, ferns, and wildflowers don’t survive this altered environment.

In the “unseeable” category of invasives are numerous fungi, smuts, rusts, mildew, mold, etc. Many of these are serious agricultural pests causing untold damage to food crops. The tropics where much fruit is grown for export are particularly susceptible. A new threat has recently come to the western hemisphere. Tropical plantations are subject to problems such as fungi because of the warm, moist climate and especially because plantations are generally monoculture. When only a single species of plant is grown in large concentration, the condition is likely to favor pests.

Guatemala alone exports over 3 billion pounds of bananas to the United States annually. All together we import over 8 billion pounds of bananas a year and this crop is at risk due to a fungus from southeast Asia. Although there are over a thousand varieties of bananas, 95 percent of all commercial bananas are essentially a clone of one – the Cavendish banana. It replaced a previous clone, Gros Michael or Big Mike. It succumbed to a fungus called fusarium wilt. A similar fate seems to await the Cavendish. In some parts of southeast Asia, a new variety of this wilt is reducing production there by forty percent per year. The wilt, a soil organism, just turned up in Colombia and could appear across central America.

Invasive species generally have an advantage as natural controls are absent. Monoculture acts to increase the distribution of the invader. Devastation of the banana crop in “northern triangle” of Central America will only serve to accelerate immigration to the United States as families seek some sort of income.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Too Many Guns

Once again we’re anguished over a seemingly senseless mass murder. Well, this time it’s not senseless but obviously driven by ethnic hatred. That hatred itself is senseless but real.

And just like every other time, gun safety comes up followed immediately by calls that now is not the time to talk about guns. We shouldn’t have the discussion because we are too emotional at this time. We need time to heal before making tough decisions. We shouldn’t politicize the grief of the bereaved.

The same refrain follows every mass murdering. So what to do? The NRA solution is more guns – of course. This is the tired good guy with a gun riff. The Walmart in El Paso has several thousand visitors a day so it would be reasonable to assume that there were a few hundred customers and employees present during the recent shooting.

Four percent of Texans have concealed carry permits so that Walmart could have had a dozen or so carrying guns that day. Where were they? Wisely, they were sheltering like any other sane person. To get up and start shooting would put them in jeopardy from the actual bad guy but also from first responders who can’t know the good guy from the bad guy.

It’s way past time for the talk, it’s time for legislation. Neither those with a violent criminal past nor the mentally ill should have access to guns, but loopholes in the law allow that access. It is estimated that one-quarter of all gun transfers occur through private hands where no background check is required. It is illegal to transfer a gun to a felon or one under indictment for a felony unless the seller is unaware. No problem – don’t ask, don’t tell.

That is a loophole worthy of Paul Bunyan’s belt. But it is one that could be easily fixed legislatively. Simply outlaw private gun transfers. If you want to sell a gun, you sell it to a licensed gun dealer. If you want to buy a gun, you buy it from a licensed gun dealer after a background check. If you want to give a gun as a gift, give them a gift card to a licensed gun dealer. See, that wasn’t so hard was it? Is it an inconvenience, yes, but so is maintaining the brakes on your car or attaching your toilet to a sanitary sewage system.

Similarly, licensing, registration, and insurance for guns, like automobiles would be simple and effective in reducing gun violence.

Consider the analogy of handling of prescription drugs. We have through our laws agreed that the distribution of them must be tightly regulated. Just because I have a script for an opiate and therefore can legally possess the same doesn’t mean I can sell them to my neighbor.

There are so many guns out in circulation now that it will take some time to have an impact on the use of guns in violent crimes but it will help. And of course we can’t expect perfection. We can’t expect that all violent crime with guns will stop, but we can expect a reduction.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Powering Flight

The obvious answer to a cleaner and safer future is the abandonment of fossil fuels. For the production of electricity, this is already on the way. Use of coal has been cut in half just since the turn of the century and the trend continues today.

Decarbonizing surface transportation is way behind the curve, but occurring nonetheless. Projections suggest that by 2030, half the new cars on the market will be electric. In the second quarter of 2019, One electric car, the Tesla Model 3, sold more cars in its class than any other. And all the others were gasoline-powered cars.

Stationary power production and surface transportation are easy compared to flight. To practically power aircraft takes an extremely energy-dense fuel. Fossil fuels such as gasoline or jet fuel are 70 to 100 times as energy-dense as the energy stored in a rechargeable Lithium-ion battery.

The only current alternative to liquid fossil fuel is biofuel, ethanol from corn and sugar beets and biodiesel from soybeans. Ethanol makes up a scant two percent of our liquid fuel needs, biodiesel less than that. The figure is even lower than that when you account for the fossil fuel energy inputs to the production of biofuels. We won’t see row crop biofuels making up a larger share of our fuel needs because of the negative environmental impacts and the fact that biofuels production drives up food prices.

Another source of liquid fuel could be waste-to-fuel plants. There are already facilities which burn garbage (solid waste) for the generation of electricity, consuming about fifteen percent of all solid waste. Although this does produce energy and reduce the need for landfills, it doesn’t help with air transportation. There are also concerns about the environmental and health impacts of the combustion products.

Recycling has become difficult recently as China has greatly decreased accepting our wastes. Rather than simply landfilling wastes that can’t be recycled, it is possible to convert the waste to a useful fuel to power aircraft.

Various wastes , even municipal sewage waste, when heated to high temperatures produce a mixture of gasses in a process called destructive distillation. These gasses can be chemically manipulated with catalysts and turned into a liquid hydrocarbon fuel.

A model system for waste to fuel would look something like a plant sited near a current landfill. Municipal solid waste, agricultural wastes, and suburban wastes would all be brought to the processing plant where the materials would be separated . Materials which are unusable would still be landfilled.

The biggest problem with a waste-to-fuel strategy is the resource base. The best way to contain the rising cost of just about anything is to become more efficient. The easiest way to be more efficient is to reduce waste. That means a diminishing resource base. This may not be a business model that many will wish to pursue.

The only long term solution to our energy needs regardless of source or form is to use a lot less and produce what we need sustainably. We have to learn to live within our means.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Renewable comparisons

Arguments against the deployment of renewable energy supplies range from the ridiculous to the sublime. from economic to aesthetic. From deceptive to just plain lying. The biggest lie, of course, is that they aren’t necessary as global warming is a hoax. The scientific consensus concerning anthropogenic global warming is overwhelming. In terms of the general population, the understanding of the risk is highest among younger, more educated compared to older, less educated populations.

There may be some valid claims that disfavor renewable energy sources but in comparison to what? And at what cost to either our pocketbooks or to a globally stable climate? Considering the current cost and trends, Wind and solar win hands down. Even utilities in conservative parts of the country – Entergy as one example are installing solar panels and producing or at least buying wind-generated power.

The most important issue is one of the release of greenhouse gasses, notably Carbon Dioxide (CO2.) It has been disingenuously argued that because of the energy used in the construction of renewables, they release more CO2 than traditional fossil fuels. The argument is preposterous. Multiple studies around the planet vary only slightly as to the results. The measure is CO2 produced per net energy produced over the lifetime of source. The units are grams of CO2 produced per kilowatt-hour produced (g/kWh.) The smaller the number the better.

The gold standard is a large hydro dam, at about 4 g/kWh. Wind is second with about 10 g/kWh, but this number is decreasing as turbines become larger and more efficient. Solar Panels, about 30 g/kWh due mainly to the high energy demand to refine sand into pure Silicon. Fossil fuel-powered plants have energy demands from their manufacture but also from the burning of the fuel itself. Relatively clean natural gas results in 400 g/kWh. And the biggest loser? Of course, it’s coal at 1200 g/kWh. Renewable wins again.

Another specious argument is that renewables are bad for the environment due to the use of toxic materials in their construction as if fossil fuel plants don’t. The average solar panel has about 4 grams of Lead per kilowatt of installed power. For a home system which requires on average 10 kilowatts, there are about 40 grams of Lead solder. Recycling the panels brings the toxic load to near zero. A small percentage of panels, about 5%, employ Cadmium technology, but again this toxic material is incorporated into the easily recycled panels.

Compare that with just the lead released to the atmosphere on burning coal, lead that is widely dispersed in the atmosphere and then to the soil and water, over 42 tons per year of Lead that can’t be recycled. Along with other toxic metals including Mercury, Arsenic, and Cadmium. The homeowner with 40 grams of lead in solar panels has over 9,000 grams of lead in the battery of every car in the driveway. Whereas toxic releases are part and parcel of burning fossil fuels, toxic components of renewables are small in amount and are not automatically released to the environment. Renewable wins again.

Whenever you hear someone talking about the toxic components associated with renewable energy be sure you have the whole story which includes the far greater toxic burden associated with fossil fuels.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

National Popular Vote

A national movement is afoot to skirt the electoral college in the election of the president. Two out of the last five presidential cycles resulted in the election of a president by the electoral college even though the candidate had only a minority of votes – George Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016. Obviously, this doesn’t sit well with the majority.

Election by the electoral college was established in the constitution. The rationale was two-fold. First, many at the constitutional convention just didn’t trust the voters to make an informed choice. An indirect process was created whereby voters in the respective states voted for electors to decide for them who should be president. Secondly, differences between more populous urban states and less populous rural states with a dash of slavery thrown in resulted in the current method of choosing electors.

Each State was allotted the number of electors equal to their congressional delegation – the number of Senators and Representatives. Individual states decided how to apportion their votes. All but Maine and Nebraska have chosen to utilize a winner-take-all method for apportioning the electoral votes. Whoever gets the most votes gets all the electoral votes.

Cue the National Popular Vote initiative. Our current system allows for the election of our president via minority rule. To change to a direct election would require an amendment to the constitution. This is made difficult by the fact that the methodology for amending the constitution is cumbersome and can take years. The popular vote initiative can be accomplished by an interstate compact whereby states agree to pledge their electors to who wins the national popular vote, regardless of how the vote goes in their state.

The compact will be in effect when and not until states with a total of 270 electoral votes agree to participate. That number is a majority and therefore all that is necessary to elect a president. So far 16 states have passed legislation joining the compact equaling 196 votes. Oregon was the most recent to join the compact along with New Mexico, Delaware, Colorado, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, California, Vermont, District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Washington, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland.

States with a total of 74 more electors are necessary to initiate the agreement. If and when this occurs the electoral college will still exist but no longer determine the outcome of presidential elections. One problem with this scheme is its dependence on impermanent state law. Right now in Colorado, there is an initiative petition circulating to repeal participation in the compact.

With the compact in force, we have essentially direct election of the president, The person who gets the most votes is elected president. Right now only a few swing states are important to candidates and therefore receive campaign visits. Deep red states such as Oklahoma and Arkansas and a Deep blue state such as Massachusetts get no campaign visits whatsoever. With the compact in force, every state matters.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Renewable Energy Milestone

Renewable energy achieved a significant milestone in April, surpassing coal as the greater source of power for electric generation in the United States. This record may not persist as April is a windy month and because of mild weather less energy is needed for heating or cooling. Regardless, it is a milestone that portends the future.

Electric power from burning coal has been in decline for over a decade. Nuclear power is flat and renewable energy is ascendant. Of the renewable energy sources, wind is the leader followed by solar. Hydropower, geothermal and biomass are relatively static.

Technological advances and economies of scale are responsible for the lower cost and therefore greater penetration of renewables in the electric power production marketplace. Wind turbines are getting larger and taller which makes them more cost-effective in both production costs and efficiency as taller turbines reach windier levels of the atmosphere. As for solar arrays, the advances are mainly in cost reductions due to economies of scale rather than greater efficiency at capturing sunlight.

About seventeen percent of the energy mix is now renewable, and that is dominated by hydroelectric dam generation. In absolute terms, wind produces about seven percent and solar a little under two percent. These numbers are small but the two sources have the greatest potential for growth. Wind energy production has increased a phenomenal thirty-fold since 2000. When it comes to growth, solar is the champ having grown one hundred times faster than wind; that is, a three thousand-fold increase in installed capacity between the year 2000 and today.
One of the beauties of solar is its scalability. Practical installations range from small home systems providing most if not all of an individual homeowners electric power needs up to utility-scale monsters that cover hundreds of acres. Slightly larger than home size installations are those for schools and churches. Even larger installations include power for businesses such as Walmart Supercenters. The real growth, however, is in utility-scale solar arrays.

Entergy, the main supplier for electricity in Arkansas is now producing power from a giant installation near Stuttgart. This facility has 350,000 panels covering 475 acres. It produces enough energy for 13,000 homes. Using this scale of production suggests that every home in Arkansas could be powered from an area less than ten percent of Lafayette County, the smallest county in Arkansas.
Wait just a minute you say, what about when the sun goes down? Not to worry, at least for a couple of decades. Power grid managers won’t worry until intermittent sources reach somewhere between thirty and fifty percent of the total load. Right now wind and solar represent less than ten percent. Two factors are important, source management and grid size. Although wind and solar are intermittent, they are also predictable, and increasingly so.

Utility grid managers have become quite good at wind and sun forecasting. They know about how much wind and solar power will be available in the short term and can effectively plan for alternate sources during those times. The total size of the US power grid adds to the stability. Power can be shipped for one region to another with the flip of a switch – well, that and a more robust national grid of transmission and distribution lines.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Hybrid, Plug-in Hybrid, and Full Electric Cars

Vehicles powered by electricity come in several flavors; simple hybrids (HEV,) plug-in hybrids (PHEV,) and fully electric (EV.) Their biggest advantage is that vehicles powered somewhat or completely by electricity are more efficient. This means they are inherently less costly to operate.

Toyota has led the charge with the introduction of their hybrid Prius in 1997 in Japan and 2001 in the US and the rest of the world. It is basically a traditional Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) and drive train. It has a small battery and electric motor which provides supplemental power, increasing the efficiency of the vehicle, even though the battery is charged mainly by the ICE. Scores of cars now use this hybrid technology and even a few pick-ups.

A very important component to all these electric vehicles is regenerative braking. When the car decelerates it causes the alternator in the vehicle to become a charging device for the battery, in the process slowing the vehicle without using the brakes.

Intermediate between simple hybrids and fully electric are plug-in hybrids. They are different in that they are true electric vehicles with an ICE to extend the range. The drive train in these vehicles are powered by the electric motor, the ICE is just used as a generator. The PHEVs have a battery which gives the vehicle a range of about 40 to 50 miles, generally enough for the majority of commuters. The vehicle can then be plugged in at home to recharge the battery for the next day’s commute. For longer trips, the ICE charges the battery on the fly.

The ability to charge a battery-powered car from the grid, that is by plugging into a wall outlet creates considerable savings as the energy to power a vehicle by electricity costs one third to one quarter as much as the cost of gasoline. Another bonus is cleaner air. Electric power is inherently cleaner than ICE power because much of the energy used to produce the electricity is from clean sustainable sources such as wind, solar and hydropower.

The real future of surface transportation is all-electric cars. These vehicles take advantage of regenerative braking and other computer controlled mechanisms. The EPA rates EVs by comparing the electric energy used to the amount of gasoline an equivalent ICE car would use. It comes out to something like 130 miles per gallon equivalent or better. Although electric cars initial costs are higher, over the lifetime costs are frequently lower than ICE vehicles due to lower fuel and maintenance costs.

By far and away the best known electric vehicle is the Tesla, built by visionary Elon Musk. Depending on the model, Teslas have a range of between 250 to over 300 miles on a charge. More importantly for Tesla however is the fact that a fast charging network has been built out across the US such that travel, at least on interstate highways, not a problem. The Tesla charge stations are located so that a 200 to 300 mile drive get one to the next charger. Charge times to fill the battery are on the order of an hour or less.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

The Celebration Gap

Early in the cold war, there was a missile gap. In the late 1950s, America was threatened by the perception that the Soviet Union possessed superiority in the size and number of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Turns out the fear was unjustified, as President Eisenhower’s science advisory committee greatly overestimated the Soviet arsenal.

What threatens us now is a celebration gap. Actually, it’s a get away from work to relax gap. The Fourth of July is here. Most get off work to be with family and friends so we can celebrate our independence from the rule of King George. The problem is, when it comes to celebrations we’re a bunch of pikers. We have ten federal holidays, which are usually matched by states but we have no national holidays where all workers have an expectancy of time off – paid or otherwise.

In most of the world, the civilized world with the sole exception of the United States, laws afford workers a guaranteed minimum number of paid National holidays. Leading the world is arch enemy Iran with twenty-seven paid holidays. Most of Europe guarantees somewhere between ten and twenty days.

But it gets worse (or better depending on your perspective), not only does much of the world guarantee paid holidays, they also mandate vacation time. This is most commonly two to three weeks on top of the holidays. France is instructive, where all full time employees are guaranteed five weeks of vacation in addition to twelve national holidays. Oh, and they have thirty-five hour work weeks. Remember this is all full time employees, not just government employees but butchers, bakers and candlestick makers.

Should we Make America Vacat(ion) Again? Is there an advantage to taking time off or does it distract from productivity? There is significant evidence that worker productivity is better when interspersed with paid time off. One study showed that employees and were in a better mood and more effective in their jobs for over a month after a paid vacation. Another study showed that vacations increased net productivity and lowered stress.

Americans don’t get it. Almost forty percent don’t take a single vacation day in a years time. Even when vacationing, sixty percent take work with them. One of the longest-running collective studies of health, the Framingham Heart Study began in 1948 showed a positive correlation between vacation time and well being and longevity.

When compared to other nationalities such as Europeans, we work longer hours, spend less time with our friends and family, only to live shorter less fulfilling lives. Somewhere we seem to have lost our way.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Water Management

Exoplanets, or extrasolar planets, are simply planets that circle a star other than our own. First detected in the late 1980s, there are now thousands of known exoplanets. Although there is no current interest as a place to flee the ravages of our planet, the exoplanets are none the less of scientific interest.

The biggest problem as an escape route is the fact of distance, the nearest is over four light-years away. A light year is the distance light travels in one year or about six trillion miles. Despite being quite distant, the exoplanets are of interest as possible sources of other life in the universe. To accommodate life as we know it requires one universal – liquid water.

Water has unique chemical properties as a solvent that no other substance really can compare. Chemistry and thermodynamics, anywhere in the universe, combine in a way that makes life inconceivable without it.

With an abundance of water on this planet, one might think it is not an issue but increasingly it is. Specifically the availability of manageable water. Global warming and the climate change that follows therefrom is making the management of water difficult.

Sea levels are rising and rising faster than previously predicted. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has suggested that the sea level rise may be as much as six feet by the end of the century, more than twice the prediction of just a few years ago. And lest you think the end of the century is a long way off, it is within the lifetime of someone who could be reading this column today.

Whole cities will either have to be abandoned or pay incredible costs for infrastructure to hold the seas back. Forty percent of the world’s population is coastal, that is live within fifty miles of a seacoast.

Meanwhile farther inland, managing water is being made more difficult. Billions of people around the world depend on meltwater from the mountain snowpack. The regions which include the western United States, Alpine Europe, Central Asia and downstream of the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau contain nearly half the human population of the planet. Global warming is threatening the timely delivery of freshwater. More cold season runoff can overwhelm reservoir storage of water, making less water available later in the growing season.

We’ve recently had a lesson on water management with the historic flooding of the Arkansas River valley. Serious to catastrophic failure of levees is responsible for disaster declarations in a sixth of Arkansas Counties. Levees and other flood control structures will have to be not just replaced but radically upgraded to accommodate changing rainfall patterns.

At every turn, climatic instabilities force greater expenditures on infrastructure. This is the cost of climate inaction. The sooner we act to reduce the rate of global warming, the less we have to spend on mitigation. We have economically practical technologies to stop driving global warming. Wind and solar electric energy coupled with battery storage can power the world. We must wholeheartedly invest in the future, now. Or do we abandon our children to our unaddressed climate disasters?

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

5G Communication Technology

The next advance in communications, at least the next faster thing in communications is the new cell phone technology called 5G, which stands for fifth generation. Currently, depending on your location either 3G or 4G(LTE) provides the fastest data transmission via a cell phone style connection assuming you get any cell phone signal.

In reality, all electronic communications move at the same rate – the speed of light which is pretty darn quick. If you could bend the light from a flashlight to follow the curvature of the earth, you would illuminate the back of your head within a tenth of a second of turning it on. This is true for a beam of light or any other electromagnetic wave such as any of the generations of cell phone technology.

So how does 5G technology “go faster” than previous technologies? Data transmission is measured in bits of date moved per unit time, otherwise bits per second. Think of the different generations as the difference in the size of the pipe delivering the data. Another simple analogy is the number of lanes on a highway. Obviously, a four-lane highway will move twice as much traffic as a two-lane highway even when the traffic is moving at the same speed.

Back to data, the current fourth-generation has an upper limit of 300 bits per second (bps,) although practically speaking about 50 bps is the current average. The projected real speed of the 5G network is 3,000 bps, a sixty-fold increase. What would have taken one minute on a mobile LTE network will take only one second with 5G technology. You will be able to use up your data plan in the blink of an eye!

The greater data transmission rates are achieved by 5G by using a different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Without going too deep into the weeds, the higher the frequency, the bigger the pipe and the faster the data transmission. Some, however, are fearful of the use of this higher frequency radiation.

Electromagnetic radiation (EMR) constitutes a spectrum, a continuum from the most energetic gamma rays, then X-rays, then ultra-violet, then visible, then microwaves and radio waves. When these rays interact with matter, you and me, they interact in different ways. The most energetic, gamma rays, X-rays, and Ultraviolet light can break chemical bonds and damage molecules such as DNA. This can lead to cancer.

EMR at frequencies below visible light are not energetic enough to break chemical bonds and therefore are not responsible for cancer. Microwaves and radio waves, where cell phone transmission happens, interact with matter by “rattling” atoms and molecules. This induced motion is perceived as heat. We live an ocean of EMR – we are literally bathed in EMR from television, radio, and current cell phone signals.

The 5G network roll out over the coming years will facilitate safer self-driving vehicles, and richer data steaming such as gaming, TV, even holographic image data. There may be some aspects of the future to fear, but a 5G network is not one of them.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University. His website is Bob of the Ozarks, www.ozarker.org