Fire and Floods

So far, this is the worst year ever for fires in the western states of California, Oregon, and Washington. The climate type for California lends its self to annual fires but global warming is making it worse because it is hotter and this time of year hotter is drier.

At the same time this is the worst season for hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and for the same reason – warmer air means warmer water means more energy to fuel storms. So far this year is bearing out NOAA’s prediction of an extremely active season.

Over four million acres have burned so far this year in the aforementioned states. Scores have died and more missing. Three million acres are on fire now and toxic smoke blankets thousands of square miles.

The result of global warming amplified weather damage here in the United States is annually hundreds of lives and billions of dollars of crop loss and property damage, far negating any minor improvements in a longer growing season and amplified CO2 for plant fertilization. Without serious effort, these costs will become insurmountable.

Of course, the real problem is the name – Global warming. For example, because of an extended heatwave in the northern climes, the ice north pole is melting faster than ever and the nearby tundra is thawing rapidly. At one point it was thought that a warmer tundra would promote moss growth which would form peat bogs. This could moderate the rate of climate change by removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and thus slowing atmospheric heat accumulation.

Ah. but life is not so simple. In parts of Siberia, the thawed, warmed, tundra is now burning. Fires in the Arctic are now the largest ever in recorded history. The Siberian taiga, what we call the boreal forests in the western hemisphere are burning and north of them the actual peat of the tundra. Underlying the tundra is permafrost of normally frozen organic-rich soil. As it thaws from the fires above it releases methane which may or may not catch fire as it is released. Regardless, methane itself is a greenhouse gas.

The release of the methane and carbon dioxide from the burning peat above the thawing permafrost will act in a vicious cycle known as positive feedback – as more greenhouse gasses are released, more heat is produced which causes the release of even more greenhouse gasses. All this of course increases the rate of climate change.

Global tropical storms, especially in the central and western pacific have had a somewhat average season with the exception of Cyclone Amphan which hit the Bay of Bengal, killing over a hundred and causing the greatest amount of damage, in excess of one hundred billion US dollars worth of damage in Bangladesh.

Obviously most eyes have been on the Covid-19 pandemic but the relentless planetary degradation due to global warming is marching on and cannot or should not be ignored. Heating of land magnifies the number of deadly heat waves and fires just like heating of water can produce more deadly storms.

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

The Anthropause

Scientists, especially those who deal with long time scales, tend to demark the passage of time that somehow defines a chunk of time. Eons are the longest time spans. The first is described as the Hadean, the first 600 million years defining the formation of the earth. Eons are divided into Eras, then Periods, Epochs, and Ages.

The Carboniferous Period as just one example is a roughly 60 million year period during which the planet was very warm and resulted in the formation of much of the coal on the planet due to photosynthetic removal of carbon from the atmosphere.

The time of dinosaurs is known as the Jurrasic Period, divided into three different Epochs. Our current Epoch is the Holocene which incorporates the time since the end of the last glaciation about 12,000 years ago. The current Age within this Epoch has come to be called the “Anthropocene” which roughly means the period of human influence.

Now, due to the global pandemic and resultant slowing of human activity, some have described our current time as an “Anthropause. “

Global tourism has been radically reduced not just in cultural centers such as cites but also in parks and natural areas. Locales normally frequented by humans have recently been left to wildlife as shown by both urban cameras and trail cams in rural areas. As a result, many wildlife scientists are scrambling to study the movements and actions of life in the temporary absence of humans.

A number of unique experiments are in progress. In Manitoba, Canada ornithologists are studying birds near now much quieter airports. Also, studies are examining low flying birds near highways to see if behavior is changing, albeit for short periods.

Ecologists at the Galapagos Marine Reserve are studying the movements of shy fish that now can move about in the absence of tourists engaged in diving and snorkeling. In the French Polynesian Islands, the impact of extended darkness near seaside hotels is being examined.

Even the open oceans are ripe for study. Reduced tourism and shipping may have an impact on whales. A research group off the coast of Monterrey, CA is collecting samples of whale blubber via specially designed crossbows. The blubber will reveal among other things the amount of cortisol in the animals, an indicator of stress.

Endangered species such as large mammals; rhinoceros, elephants, etc. may be at greater risk from poaching due to the absence of tourists. Although this research is happening during a time of great expense to both human life and the global economy, it is a once in a lifetime pause or at least hopefully so.

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

Firebombs and Fertilizer

On August 4, 2020 a warehouse in Beirut, Lebanon blew up. It was the same explosive that was used by the domestic terrorist who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. An even larger explosion destroyed much of the gulf port of Texas City in 1947, killing over five hundred. The explosive? Ammonium Nitrate, used mainly as a fertilizer but also as occasionally employed as an explosive.

Roughly ten to fifteen thousand years ago humanity began the transition from a hunter-gather tradition to agriculture. The transition is ongoing to this day but is complete for all but the most isolated primitive societies. One thing learned about agriculture early on is the plants do better with fertilizer – traditionally animal manure. It provides a micronutrient – Nitrogen, necessary for building protein.

Our atmosphere has an abundant supply but it is in a form that has limited use. Some plants such as legumes have nodules in their roots that contain bacteria that can convert Nitrogen from the atmosphere to the form, Nitrate, that plants can take up from the soil.

If you are growing grain however, and especially in a northern climate, additional Nitrogen from other sources is important. A rich source was Chilean Nitrate. The Atacama desert, the highest driest spot on earth has for countless ages accumulated Nitrate. The source is slow but atmospheric – lightening. Lightening converts atmospheric Nitrogen in very small amounts to nitrate, which in the dry desert slowly accumulates. But it is a slow high energy process. The Beagle of Charles Darwin’s fame visited the Atacama to assess the supplies of nitrate available.

Early in the twentieth century as the demand for nitrate accelerated, two German Chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch developed the chemistry to produce nitrate from atmospheric Nitrogen, a process called artificial fixation of Nitrogen. With natural gas as a source of energy and Hydrogen, atmospheric Nitrogen is reduced to Ammonia and thence converted to nitrate.

The chemists received the Nobel Prize for their work. Although the process has been used to this day to produce fertilizer, Ammonium Nitrate was used by Germany during WWI as an explosive. So what the heck turns fertilizer into an explosive? Concentration and pressure.

Whether the Ammonium Nitrate is for a bomb in a Ryder Truck, or a storage warehouse in Beirut the conditions are essentially the same. In Oklahoma City, the bomb was in barrels saturated with diesel fuel which increased the explosive density by solution. In Beirut, the extant condition was age. The material had been there far too long in a humid environment which again allowed some dissolution and hence concentration.

The explosion was triggered by a fire in an adjacent warehouse. The blast killed hundreds and made homeless hundreds of thousands more. It blew ships out of the water, demolished nearby grain silos, and created a several hundred feet wide crater.

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

The Broad Street Pump – Epidemiology

Resolution of the COVID crisis, that is the saving of health and lives will take several approaches. Disease in an individual is studied in a clinic and or hospital. Laboratory studies complement the data gathered in the clinic. For widespread disease study in an affected population, epidemiology is the appropriate tool.

The study of epidemiology is not unlike journalism where one attempts to weave a story around the common threads of illness in multiple individuals. It is the who, what, where, when, how of medicine. The tools of epidemiology range from good old gumshoe to powerful forensics such as DNA. Contact tracing is part of epidemiology. There is a rich history of epidemiology. Circa 400 Before the Current Era (BCE) Hippocrates noted in an essay “On Airs, Waters, and Places” that environmental and host factors may influence the course of diseases.

In the annals of epidemiology one study and one name stand out. London, England in the mid-1800s was racked by cholera outbreaks. The disease often ravaged poorer communities in flood-prone low-lying areas where fog would form. The “night air” was thought by some to be the source of cholera, called the miasma theory. John Snow, a physician thought otherwise.

He felt that it was more likely waterborne. He studied a particular outbreak in the summer of 1854. The surviving patients were in hospitals over a wide area, rather than localized. This in itself was unique. Dr. Snow with the help of Reverend Whitehead interviewed the various patients, determined where they lived, and then examined where they went on a daily basis. Essentially he took the role of a geographer to find how the paths of those impacted crossed.

Although the cholera victims lived at a distance of each other, the one commonality was their drawing drinking water from one pump – The Broad Street Pump. John Snow removed the handle from the Broad Street pump and ended the cholera epidemic. It turned out that this one well was contaminated with sewage. Cholera is waterborne. If exposure to contaminated water is stopped, the disease is stopped.

So what does epidemiology say about our current pandemic? It has revealed that our current pandemic most likely originated in a Wuhan wet market where a diverse number of different wild animals are kept for sale, even butchered on the spot. This strongly suggests and DNA studies help confirm that COVID-19 is a zoonotic, a disease formally in an animal that has “jumped” to humans. Other zoonoses include AIDS and Ebola.

Although the virus originated in Asia, the biggest outbreak, that in New York City, came through Europe on its way here. The virus is spread by droplets and/or aerosols of an infected individual which can travel several feet from just breathing but especially from sneezing or coughing. These droplets/aerosols are infectious when they contact mucus membranes of the mouth or nose.

The solution in the long term is vaccination but that is unlikely to be available until sometime next year. Until then the solution is to physically block transmission. Masks vary in their efficacy but just about any mask is better than no mask. Physical distancing works and the greater the distance the better. And wash your hands.

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

Hydrogen as an Renewable Fuel

The future of transportation, at least the clean air kind of transportation, will be powered by electricity. Fully electric cars are being manufactured by some companies most notably Tesla and most manufacturers have plans for them. Even big trucks such as semis are being developed to run on electric motors. Plug-in hybrids and simple hybrids utilize a combination of electric motors and Internal Combustion Engines (ICE) for greater fuel efficiency than straight ICE-powered vehicles.

Vehicles that use electricity for at least part of their motive power use batteries for onboard energy storage. These batteries can be charged from the grid for plug-in hybrids. Hybrids such as the Toyota Prius are charged on the fly by regeneration from braking or alternatively by charging from the ICE.

Under certain circumstances such as rail traffic, the electricity can be provided through the tracks or overhead wires. Depending on the country most to all rail traffic in Europe is powered by motors charged by overhead electric lines.

An as yet exploited alternative to batteries or electric lines are fuel cells powered by hydrogen. A fuel cell is a device which uses hydrogen as the fuel to be converted directly to electricity. The only product of the process is water.

Hydrogen as a fuel has several advantages. As noted it is “clean burning” the only product being water. Important for transportation is its very high energy density. For a given weight Hydrogen has about three times as much energy as gasoline and over 100 times as much as that stored in a battery used in electric vehicles.

Under normal conditions, what chemists call Standard Temperature and Pressure, Hydrogen is a gas but it can be pressurized to decrease its volume. The biggest drawback to Hydrogen as compared say to a fossil fuel is that it can’t be pulled from the air or mined from the ground, it has to be created. Currently, the cheapest way is to strip the Hydrogen from natural gas. Alternately, it can be made from water via a process called electrolysis.

If the energy to make the electricity needed is from wind or solar, it is a way of making a storable form of renewable fuel. And that is a really big area of research. Of course one can always just use solar/wind-generated electrical energy to do electrolysis, but there are inefficiencies.

Two areas of research are microbial biomass conversion and direct photocatalytic production. Microbial production of Hydrogen comes from engineered bacteria that produce Hydrogen when fed. If the feed is something such as fructose made from corn, then the process is renewable.

Likely the best method is the latter, photocatalytic production. Some materials, Titanium Dioxide is one example, when placed in water and exposed to sunlight cleave the water releasing Hydrogen and Oxygen. The problem is low efficiency. Intense research is examining a welter of more exotic materials that are of much greater efficiency.

Currently, Toyota is the only manufacturer selling a Hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. In the United States, they are for sale only in California and Hawaii, and even in these locations, Hydrogen fueling facilities are few and far between.

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

Coronavirus and Science

As a scientist, I find it difficult to rationalize how some reject knowledge gained by a simple process of being careful about how things come to be known. Science is not some arcane unyielding body of knowledge but rather a process of ensuring that what we learn about something represents reality. There are numerous definitions of science but my favorite comes from the Nobel laureate Richard Feynman: science is what we do to keep from fooling ourselves.

The value of wearing a mask and social distancing as an effective means of disrupting the transmission of a serious disease comes from an understanding of the germ theory as shown by Louis Pasteur around 1860. This is nothing new and certainly not political. One hundred and sixty years of medical wisdom supports the fact that disrupting the transmission of an infectious agent is the way to prevent the spread of the disease. In this case, the infectious agent, SARS CoV-2 (the virus), may be new but how to address it’s spread is not.

Covid-19 (the disease caused by the virus) can go away but not by magic, rather by an informed and compassionate public taking the right steps to break the chain of transmission. Here in the United States, a relatively ill-informed public took half-hearted measures and then abandoned them too soon. New cases are on the rise both here in Arkansas and across the United States. More people are becoming ill and more people are dying because too many reject science. Too many people are rejecting hundreds of years of medical wisdom.

The leadership and citizens of much of the technologically advanced world get it. Life in New Zealand is back to normal as they are free of any new cases of Covid-19. The member states of the European Union have a larger population but hundreds of times fewer new cases. Meanwhile here in the United States, we are see-sawing in and prematurely out of closing down businesses to prevent disease transmission.

There is a furious global effort to develop a vaccine to combat Covid-19, but that can take a year or more to properly develop, test, and distribute. This could be the solution but again, reluctance to accept science stands in the way. Polling shows that up to fifty percent of the public will reject vaccination.

There is a long line of scientists; Pasteur, Jenner, Koch, Hooke, Harvey, Paracelsus, Vesalius, and on and on, and many more. More modern medical luminaries such as Reed and Salk and up to the present – Dr. Anthony Fauci . They all have provided the knowledge as to how we should address the pandemic if we care.

There is no alternate host, no reservoir for the coronavirus, it only exists in active cases. Stop transmission, and the disease goes away. It really is that simple.

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

Sustainable Energy is Booming

By late in 2019, the combined electricity produced by grid-connected wind and solar photovoltaics represented 10% of the total production. And the share of these intermittent but sustainable energy sources continues to grow. Energy production from coal is in free fall, despite the current administration’s attempts to favor it.

A constant refrain from detractors is intermittent sources such as wind and solar require expensive backup when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining, and therefore can’t be a serious part our electricity production until such batteries or other energy storage systems are available. That however is just not the case. It is estimated that a national network of electricity production and distribution can utilize up to about 30% wind and solar without the need for additional storage to back up the intermittency.

Consider what happens when one of our local nuclear reactors goes down to refuel. Is there another reactor on stand by to make up for the power not produced during the refueling? No, of course not, there is plenty of “slack” in the system to make up for that not produced during the refueling.

Other factors help balance the power from wind and solar. Solar is well matched to demand. Demand is higher during the day when solar panels are producing, and lower at night when the power from solar panels isn’t needed. Without the input from solar panels, a power company may have to buy power from sources that are on standby. Some power companies utilize time-of-day pricing, charging less at night when power is relatively abundant, and more during the day when demand is higher.

Wind and solar also balance each other seasonally. As sunlight passes through the atmosphere light is scattered and less reaches the earth. The lower the sun angle the more atmosphere it must pass through. Solar panels are more productive in the summer due to the the higher sun angle. A higher sun angle means less scattering of the light and more sunlight striking the panels.

Conversely, wind turbines are more productive in the winter. There are two reasons. Wind is generated by temperature differences between locales and the differences are greater in the winter, hence higher wind speeds. Additionally, colder air is denser. More power will be generated by the denser air at a given wind speed.

One final balance is that the sun shines during the day (duh) so solar power is available during the day, but wind speeds are greater at night. Wind and solar are both intermittent but complementary, both daily and seasonally.

As intermittent energy sources grow there will be a need in the future for energy storage and that constitutes a huge area of research. Electrochemical batteries, pumped water storage, other gravitational energy storage systems, compressed air, flywheels, and on and on. The future will be powered by the wind and the sun, cleanly without the need for fuel, and without waste disposal issues.

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

Fungi, a Few Highlights

There are estimated to be some five million species of fungi, from deadly mycotoxin producing molds to gastronomic delights worth hundreds of dollars per ounce. From the fungus singularly responsible for the global alcohol industry to a fungus responsible for jock itch.

The defining characteristics include the fact that they are eukaryotes – they have a cell nucleus unlike bacteria and possess specialized organelles that allow for the “burning of fuel;” that is, combining oxygen with sugars to produce energy. They are all sessile – they can’t get up and move around nor do they use sunlight like plants. As absorptive heterotrophs, they gain nutrients by digesting food externally and then absorbing it. By this function alone they are very important in recycling plant and animal matter.

On the positive economic side, the arguably most important fungus is yeast, specifically of the genus Saccharomyces, or Brewer’s yeast. The global market for alcohol is one to two trillion dollars per annum. There is evidence of wine production dating to circa 6000 BCE in eastern Europe. A minor side product of brewing is a one-hundred-year-old product called Vegemite, a mixture of leftover brewer’s yeast and some flavoring – Australians swear by it.

Some fungi known as smut can cause damage to plants and especially stored grains. An interesting example that plagued medieval Europe is ergot, Claviceps purpurae. This fungus can grow on rye and related grains and when the infected grain is consumed causes a condition known as Saint Anthony’s Fire. Chronic low-level ergot poisoning leads to gangrene with damage to extremities whereas acute poisoning results in headache, spasms, disturbances of the GI tract, convulsions, and psychosis. During the middle ages in Europe whole communities would have been occasionally affected. The last know outbreak of St Anthony’s Fire occurred in France in 1951.

Alkaloids from ergot were later used to produce a semi-synthetic derivative known as LSD – the hallucinogenic drug made famous by Timothy Leary in the 1960s. Other hallucinogens are known to occur naturally in several different species of mushrooms, They were traditionally used during religious ceremonies.

The Aztecs consumed a mushroom known as Teonanacatl, Pslyocibe mexicana. In Siberia a mushroom called Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria was similarly employed with a unique twist. In a Siberian ceremony the Shaman would consume the mushrooms, then because the active drug was not transformed, would serve his urine to acolytes. Drinking the urine produced the same effects as having consumed the mushrooms themselves.

Consumption of many wild mushrooms is capable of producing all sorts of untoward symptoms from minor GI problems up to an agonizing death. One edible, but it depends, mushroom is called the inky cap, Coprinopsis atramentaria. Consumption of this mushroom, common in both Europe and North America, is not a problem unless alcohol is consumed ant the same time or shortly thereafter.

The mushroom has a compound that interferes with the metabolism of alcohol. This causes a mildly toxic intermediate, acetaldehyde, which induces nausea and vomiting within minutes of consumption of alcohol. Not surprisingly another common name for this mushroom is tippler’s bane.


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

Ending H-1B Visas is Wrong

STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) don’t attract enough Americans with advanced degrees to staff our universities and research facilities, both private and public. Many with this training come from overseas. They gain entry to the United States via an H-1B visa. This visa can last six years, and with support from the hiring institution can lead to a green card and a path to citizenship.

The value of immigrants to our scientific efforts are immense. We lead the world in Nobel Prize winners, aided by immigrants. Over a third of the Nobel Prizes awarded in the STEM fields of Chemistry, Medicine and Physics here in the United States were awarded to immigrants.

These immigrant scientists are not taking jobs from residents, as a condition for the visa is sponsorship by an agency that has stated that they can’t otherwise find suitably trained people. In the United States, we follow the money and apparently science is not where the money is. The study of STEM fields is an arduous task, frequently requiring long hours in a laboratory above and beyond class time. This is exactly the talent we need to address our fight with the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 as of this writing has infected over 2 million and killed over 122 thousand. We are adding around 30,000 thousand cases a day. Obviously we are not out of the woods with this infection yet. For the short term we need to develop therapeutic agents that will reduce the deaths and damaging symptoms of SARS CoV-2, and in the long term develop an effective vaccine.

To accomplish these goals we need an “all hands on deck” effort by those trained in STEM fields. The pandemic has greatly slowed the number of highly trained immigrants so logic would suggest that we should be taking steps to bring in more STEM immigrants. But that is not what is happening. President Trump has taken the opposite tack. He has halted the issuance of H-1b visas! In his anti-immigration zeal, he is acting to prolong, not shorten our time of troubles with the pandemic.

While most of the rest of the world is acting with science bolstering their effort, our politics is getting in the way. Even though we represent a scant 5 % of the world’s population, our deaths account for 1/3 of all COVID-19 deaths.

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

Processed Food

Today we think of processed foods as a relatively recent innovation with rather negative connotations, think chicken nuggets, Cheetos and diet sodas. However, the reality is that humans have been processing foods long before we settled into agricultural societies.

The first obvious innovation was the use of fire to cook. It takes less work and provides more calories to eat cooked food such as meat and root vegetables. Some authors have suggested that the use of fire to prepare food was integral to human development, allowing for enlarged brains, and resulting in the more gracile facial characteristics of smaller jaws and teeth.

The timeline for the adoption of the use of fire to prepare foods ranges from suggestions that H. erectus used fire 1.8 million years ago. Others suggest that the real control of fire and frequent use of fire in food preparation dates roughly to the time of a later relative H. neaderthalensis, about 400,000 years ago. Others say it is as recent as 20,000 years ago. Whichever timeline you choose, processing food with fire began long before what we describe as civilization, the transition from isolated hunter-gatherer groups to larger agrarian societies.

Agriculture was the great transition to move towards larger social groups, but there is evidence that making bread preceded the active cultivation of grain crops. Wild grains are nutritious but difficult to consume without processing. By grinding grains to produce a flour, and then baking that into bread provided a relatively calorie-dense, environmentally stable and easily transportable food. As we became more dependent on bread, cultivation became necessary and drove the transition towards agriculture.

The shift to agriculture produced new demands. Crops are seasonal but our diets are daily, hence the need for storage at least on an annual cycle. The next technical advance was quite likely the invention of beer. Traces of a residue from beer on pottery have been found dating back to over 7,000 years ago.

During the Middle Ages, much of Europe was probably mildly drunk – men, women, and children alike. Hygiene not being the strong suit at the time, water sources were invariably polluted with human wastes. To brew beer however required boiling the wort, a mixture of malted barley and water. This produced a potable beverage with considerable nutrition to boot. Later hops were found to improve the flavor and increase the storage life, making beer all the more valuable.

Europe, especially northern Europe saw the evolution of lactose tolerance in adults. Milk is an extremely nutritious source of protein and fat and therefore a complement to bread and beer. But milk doesn’t store well. Cheese on the other hand has a considerable shelf life, months to years.

Cheese was first made by storing mike in a natural container, a stomach removed from a ruminant. A substance known as rennet present in the lining of the stomach caused the milk to clabber. Add various bacteria to produce lactic acid for increased digestibility and you have a flavorful, stable, fat and protein laden foodstuff.

A diet of “processed food” – Cheese Whiz on a cracker washed down with a beer – is a truly ancient meal. With the macronutrients protein, fat and carbohydrate, and the micronutrients both fat and water-soluble vitamins, it’s all there. Bon appetit.