Wood as Fuel

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The capture and control of fire is right up near the top when one considers technology and human evolution. Whether simply warming the hearth, defending a home place from wild animals or cooking food, fire is a most essential ingredient. Estimates are that an ancestral species Homo erectus learned to control fire ½ a million years ago, and some scholars believe as early as 1.7 million years ago.

Wood fueled the production of the various metal ages up to and including the iron age. Wood was still the dominant fuel used in blast furnaces in early 19th century England. In fact it was the shortage of wood for the furnaces that stimulated the development of the use of coal. Forests were gradually cleared farther and farther from the furnaces until transportation costs made hauling the wood impractical.

Wood, straw, dung, etc are still major fuels in the underdeveloped world. Worldwide wood is the fourth largest source of fuel after the fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas. Wood and derived products like charcoal are about one third of all fuel use in Africa and over half in Oceania.

Industrial fuel wood use in the United States is limited. Certain industries that produce significant amounts waste wood can burn it to produce steam for process heat or to drive turbines.

The amount of heat derived from burning wood varies as the density of the wood with hardwoods such as oak and hickory having the highest fuel values. At the other end of the scale are softwoods such as pine. This is only true where the wood is measured by volume such as a cord (a stack of wood 4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet- 128 cubic feet.)

When measured by mass all wood has about the same fuel value which is the same as the fuel value of carbohydrates like sugar or potatoes. A toothpick and a piece of spaghetti of the same weight will produce the same amount of heat when burned.

In rural areas where available, wood is used for space heat. It may be hard to think about it now in August, but come January or so, there will be nothing like a hot wood stove to back up to on a cold morning. An air tight wood stove can be a useful source of heat, but an open fireplace, regardless of how attractive, will actually remove heat from a room.

Wood can be a renewable energy source but just how “green” is it? Not all that much. There is much waste when wood is harvested for fuel, it’s call the “roots and shoots” issue. The roots below ground and the unused branches and leaves mean that a lot of biomass is wasted.

The biggest drawback about use of wood as fuel is the burning. Any time something burns varying amounts of noxious products are produced. Fine particulates damage respiratory systems and cause asthma, especially in children. Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons produced by combustion are carcinogenic. Carbon Monoxide production can be deadly. It interferes with oxygen absorption in the blood and result in acute respiratory failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

It is estimated that over 4 million premature deaths a year can be blamed on cooking and heating with biomass, essentially all in the underdeveloped parts of the world.

Energy from Ocean Currents

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Whether we learn to stop burning fossil fuels as a way to mitigate global warming or we simply use them all up, we will have to find truly sustainable supplies of energy for our future. Nuclear power is always a possibility but seems to be going nowhere as nobody but nobody wants the radioactive wastes.

Solar energy in all its direct and derivative forms is the odds on leader. Solar thermal for powering turbines to generate electricity and Photovoltaic energy production are direct applications of solar power. Important but derivative is wind. Wind is the result of the Coriolis effect (more about this later) and uneven heating of land and water which creates the movement of air from regions of high pressure to low pressure. Wind driven wave action of some coastal areas also can be exploited.

Hydropower is also derived solar power. Solar heating causes water to evaporate from the surface of the earth. The water vapor can then condense and return to the surface as rain. Rainfall can be captured in reservoirs and used to generate power.

Geothermal power, heat from the interior of the earth, can be tapped to generate power where cracks in earth’s mantle make sufficient heat close enough to the surface as to be practically accessed.

Even the moon can provide power. It’s gravitational attraction drives the tides and in prime locations this power source has been tapped. The Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia has tidal changes as high as 50 feet.

Ocean currents are an as yet untapped source of power. They are driven by several factors. The Coriolis effect is a force exerted by the rotation of the earth. Combine the Coriolis effect with the temperature differential between the equator and the poles and and differences in salinity between the two and you get a gyre.

The north Atlantic gyre is a circulation of water involving the gulf stream flowing north up the east coast of the United States, across the north Atlantic then down the western coast of Europe and back east across the Atlantic. The flow rate if the gulf stream is only about 2 miles an hour. This seems slow compared to wind speeds of about 12 to 15 miles per hour need for practical wind turbine power production.

The much slower movement of water still can provide significant amounts of power as water is about 800 times as dense as air, and power production is directly proportional to fluid density. All that is needed for power production is the placement of turbines anchored in place amid an ocean current.

Another current which could be used to produce power is a similar ocean gyre in the Pacific Ocean. The north Pacific equivalent of the gulf stream is called the Kuroshio current. It flows northward up the east coast of Japan and circulates in a clockwise pattern around the north Pacific.

An abundance of sustainable energy supplies exist around the world. Accessing multiple sources of sustainable supplies can assure all the power we need without using fossil fuels. The energy needs of humanity can be accomplished without utilizing fossil fuels and all the baggage their use entails.

Toxic Beaches

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Beaches in several counties on Florida’s Atlantic Coast are currently closed due to the presence of slimy, malodorous and most importantly toxic algae. The algae growth comes from nutrient laden water being released from Lake Okeechobee to prevent flooding. For the back story read on.

Thomas Malthus was a English cleric who in 1798 published an essay which suggested that human disaster loomed due to over population. He postulated that population grew logarithmically [1,2,4,8,16…] whereas food production only grows arithmetically [1,2,3,4,5…] Malthus predicted famine and starvation were the only possible outcomes without controlling population growth.

The Malthusian Catastrophe of course didn’t come about. Although population is growing logarithmically agricultural practices have been able to sustain burgeoning human populations. Improved tools, irrigation, mechanization, fertilizers, pesticides,plant breeding and ever larger farms averted the catastrophe.

An important agricultural innovation was called the Green Revolution of the 1950s-1960s. Food production was increased by careful selection of plant cultivars which responded favorably to large increases of Nitrogen and Phosphorous fertilizers. Application at rates far above what a crop could actually absorb did result in increased production, but resulted in fertilizer run-off. Increased profits from the crops offset the wasted fertilizer.

But everything goes somewhere. The excess fertilizer washes off the farmland and into adjacent low areas to rivers and lakes, and ultimately into the oceans. Just as the fertilizer increases crop production in farm fields, it increases algal growth in the rivers and lakes.

The Atlantic beaches in South Florida are being fouled with algal blooms from water draining from Lake Okeechobee. The fertilizer laden water is the result of run-off from sugar cane fields which have replaced much of the Everglades.

Besides the inconvenience and costs associated with lost tourism dollars, there is significant secondary environmental damage. After an algae bloom comes an algae crash. As the algae dies off it decomposes aerobically. That means it consumes the Oxygen in the water. The same Oxygen that all the animals require, from the simplest aquatic insects up to and including all the fish.

In certain locales there are “dead zones” with little if any animal life. All the coastal areas of the US, including the Great Lakes, are plagued by dead zones at the mouths of major rivers. They are know scientifically as hypoxic (low-Oxygen) zones and range in size from less than a square mile to over 25,000 square miles. The largest is essentially all of the Baltic Sea. The hypoxic zone at the mouth of the Mississippi is about 7,000 square miles

Around the world there a several hundred of these sterile areas. We have averted the Malthusian Catastrophe for us, but created a catastrophe for the native flora and fauna of the planet.

Ozone on the Mend

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For once I can bring good [environmental] news to this column. The Ozone hole is shrinking! This is a result of what may be the most successful international treaty ever to address a dire environmental threat. First a little background and then the details.

Ozone is an allotrope of the element Oxygen. Allotrope is the name given to substances made of the same element which have different atomic arrangements. Diamonds and graphite are perhaps the best know substances which are allotropes, in this case of carbon. The stuff which comprises 21% of the atmosphere, the stuff that aerobic organisms such as we human beings need to live is also an allotrope of Oxygen. It’s the most common form so it is just called Oxygen, but it is more formally Dioxygen. It’s chemical formula is O2, whereas the formula of Ozone is O3.

Ozone is created in the upper atmosphere via the reaction of dioxygen. The process of the conversion of Dioxygen to Ozone absorbs significant amounts Ultraviolet light. If this light were not absorbed in the process it would continue to the surface and make life on earth impossible. What little Ultraviolet light does make it to the surface of earth is responsible for the most common form of cancer – skin cancer.

OK, that is a little dense, to recap simply, life would not exist on the surface of the planet without a proper amount of Ozone in the upper atmosphere.

In the early 1970s scientists showed in laboratory studies that certain man made compounds known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) react with Ozone and suggested that if these compounds are released to the atmosphere they could cause the depletion of Ozone in the stratosphere (upper atmosphere.) Subsequent measurements of the amount of Ozone showed that in fact the CFCs were going up to the stratosphere and Ozone was being depleted. And the depletion correlated precisely with the concentration of CFCs.

For complex meteorologic reasons, the depletion was the most severe during the spring over the north and south poles. The depletion was so great as to constitute a “hole in the Ozone layer.” Whereas the reduction of Ozone amounted to a few percent at the equator, it got as high as 90% or more at the poles.

In the late 1980s world leaders met in Montreal and agreed to a treaty, thenceforth called the Montreal Protocol which would phase out the use of CFCs and similar compounds, the majority of which were used as refrigerants. New compounds that did not deplete Ozone were gradually developed and put in to service, but it was a decades long process to find the right compounds and modify the refrigerator compressors to work with the new compounds.

Recent measurements now show that it worked! Reductions in the production and release of CFCs has slowed the degradation of stratospheric Ozone and in fact the “holes” have begun to heal. Besides the fact that life on the planet can go on unimpeded by damaging ultraviolet light, it shows that the world community can come to agreements that affect all of us.

Agriculture and Climate Change – A Two Way Street

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Global warming and the attendant changing climate is caused mainly but not entirely by burning fossil fuels. This releases carbon dioxide, the principle greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere which traps heat by absorbing infrared radiation. Close to 25 per cent of the greenhouse gasses produced in the United States is due to agriculture.

Fuel, mostly oil derived gasoline and diesel fuel is used in tractors and other farm equipment to produce and haul food and fiber. Additional fossil fuels are used to produce fertilizer and a bevy of “cides” – insecticides, herbicides, etc. .

Nitrous Oxide and Methane are two more greenhouse gasses released to the atmosphere and have agricultural sources. Nitrous Oxide comes mainly from application of nitrogen fertilizers. Methane comes from the action of anerobic bacteria on plant matter. This can occur in wet soils such as occur in rice farming. Sewage lagoons where the wastes from confined animal operations also produce methane. Last but not least the stomachs of ruminants such as cows and sheep contain the same bacteria and produce the same methane emissions.

A final agricultural contribution to global warming comes from clearing timberland or more importantly rainforests for crop production. This is not particularly an issue here in the United States but is an issue on the global stage. The role the United States plays is as a consumer. Rainforests in the Amazon basin are being cleared to create pasture for cattle, aka hamburgers. In southeast Asia forests are cleared to create cropland for palm oil production, aka deep fried whatever.

Briefly that’s the impact of agriculture on climate change, how about the obverse, the impact of climate change on agriculture, especially here in the United States? The picture is not pretty.

Global warming is a cause, climate change is a result. Changing climate means a disruption of agricultural zones, not only based on temperature, but also rainfall. Crop production, whether for us to eat directly or for feed for livestock requires climatic stability. Any individual crop requires just the right combination of temperature, rainfall at the right time and proper soil conditions for that crop.

Climate change will disrupt all of the above. Consider our breadbasket, grain production in the upper midwest. Two factors impacted by global warming are a problem. First is the temperature. As the planet warms the growing zone will shift to the north. No problem you say, we will just grow our corn in Manitoba rather than Iowa. The problem is that the deep loam of Iowa doesn’t exist in Manitoba, and soil is a big deal.

Second is timely rainfall. Computer models of global warming predict that rainfall patterns will change in two ways. Rainfall will increase in the coastal areas, but decrease in the mid-continental regions. Not good. Also what rainfall that does occur will come in more intense storms. Even worse.

We have to eat, but we need to learn to produce our food in ways that lessen our carbon footprint, and at the same time decrease our dependence on crops that are too sensitive to climate. For starters, support your local small farmers. They generally have a smaller carbon footprint and can react more quickly to climate change.

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Go Solar

The amount of solar energy available to the United States is overwhelming. With today’s Photovoltaic technology, 16 per cent efficient PV panels, the total energy needs of the country could be met using a land area of only 8,000 square miles. This is an incredibly small area compared to the 3.8 million square miles of total land area. All the solar panels we need to power the country could fit in a fraction of Elko County in Northeast Nevada.

Just imagine, miners don’t need to die underground to extract coal. Mountain tops don’t need to be blown off and pushed into valleys to get at a coal seam. We wouldn’t need to worry about whether fracking wastes pollute our ground water, or bust up the foundations of homes to access natural gas. We don’t need parking lots full of high level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. Yes, you read that right. Our only plan for the storage of high level radioactive wastes, hot for tens of thousands of years, is to store the waste in concrete containers around the sites of nuclear plants.

The health of the public would be improved and incidentally the cost of healthcare lowered as we no longer would have have all the untoward things in the air that cause problems. Not burning any fossil fuels means less lung irritants such as fine particulates. Less heavy metals that cause nerve damage, less acid rain, less ozone, and the list goes on and on.

Rather than produce all the energy in a fraction of one county in Nevada, we could spread it out to the individual states. The US uses a total of about 4 trillion kWh per year. Closer to home, Arkansas uses about 50 billion kWh per year. To meet that need we would only use about 100 square miles, less than a tenth of the area of Arkansas County in the southeast part of the state. Or let’s make each county generate their share. For Pope County we need a scant 2 square miles out of 831. It’s easy to see that we have plenty of free, sustainable sunlight and the land foot print needed is not even an issue. We will also need to upgrade our transmission network, but still that’s doable. The real fly in the ointment is storage.

The aforementioned calculations of land area needed are for full power, 24/7 year around, assuming we have storage for when the sun doesn’t shine due to time of day, season or weather. This a problem but not an insurmountable one. Elon Musk, the manufacturer of the Tesla electric car, and Space X reusable rockets is building a huge battery factory in Sparks, Nevada. The battery factory will occupy a building covering an area equal to 95 football fields.

The factory will be powered exclusively by solar electric power, with energy to spare. The batteries built in this factory are lithium based and are intended for his fleet of electric cars, but it shows that really large scale production of all aspects of sustainable energy are not just something in the distant future but are close at hand.

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A Few Red Birds

T his summer the color of Bullfrog Valley is red, for birds anyway. There are the eponymous Cardinals who literally define their color – Cardinal red. They are year round residents and very common visitors at bird feeders. Cardinals are all red, save a black face and are distinguished by a tuffed head.

North America’s only all red bird is the Summer Tanager, and a summer visitor to the area. The male as noted is all red, sort of a strawberry color while the female is an olive yellow color. They aren’t often seen at feeders because they are insectivores grabbing large numbers of bees and wasps from the air. They are common but not often seen. They are best detected nearby from their sound. They have a distinct call note that sounds like a downward pitched “tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk.”” Also denoted as pit-ti-tuck.”

The Scarlet tanager also spends it summers here. The male is red the female yellowish green, is hard to find in the canopy and is insectivorous. The only difference is this red tanager has black wings. The distinct call note for the Scarlet Tanager is “chick-burrr.”

One more somewhat red bird, now a year round resident, is the house finch. They fill the day at my feeders eating lots and lots of sunflower seed. They are a predominately brown/tan finch, but the males have a red head, throat, and rump.

So much for a little natural history of a few local red birds, now the why and how of red birds. The why is clear. The brighter the color the better, due to it’s signaling fitness to a mate. One of the ways a female measures the health of a possible mate may be via the the proxy of bright colors. It’s true of not only red but any other bright color or combination thereof.

There seem to be a whole complement of genes that “travel” together evolutionarily speaking. Genes that lead to bright colors, or striking patterns, or big antlers for that matter seem to be linked with genes the contribute to fitness. These would be genes for physical or ever immunologic strength, genes for adaptability, or even intelligence. This evolutionary cooperativity has been referred to as a society of genes.

So bright redness is indicative of fitness, the fitter birds succeeding in the game of evolution. Now how about the how? How do bird make or get these bright colors? It’s all in the biochemistry. It turns out that birds redness comes from a birds ability to convert dietary components which contain pale yellow pigments. Bright red birds have an excess of a particular enzyme know as cytochrome P450, an enzyme shared with animals and used mainly to detoxify certain toxins. It also converts pale yellow pigments to bright red pigments.

In a study of red vs yellow domestic canaries, the red variety had thousands of times the cytochrome P450 activity as their yellow conspecifics. The pale yellow pigments are converted to bright red pigments, then deposited in feathers and voila, bright red birds.

Unintended Consequences

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The mass murder in Orlando has brought the issue of gun control, or more correctly gun safety, to the fore. Liberals want to close the loophole on background checks for gun purchases. If you go to a gun dealer, a background check will be run to determine if you are qualified to own a gun. Even the broadest interpretation of the second amendment doesn’t allow for certain individuals to legally own a gun, just ask anyone convicted of a felony.

The loophole is of course private sales. Anyone who is not a gun dealer can legally sell deadly weapons to anyone else. Individuals are not required to perform a background check. As long as they don’t ask, then they don’t know if a person should be banned from owning a gun and the sale is legal.

And its not hard to get a gun through a private sale. Facebook is full of local buy/sell/swap pages where guns are routinely offered up. Hand guns, shot guns, even assault rifles are all available no questions asked.

This is because at the federal level conservatives think arming everybody is just dandy. They don’t want to close the loopholes in gun sales, and they certainly don’t want to limit the firepower available to the average citizen by banning the sale of so called assault rifles.

Ironically, the insistence on the freedom to own deadly weapons may serve to reduce our freedoms, essentially our privacy, in other ways. Right now Democrats in the Senate are filibustering for legislation which would deny guns to suspected terrorists – those on a no fly list. Although this may sound reasonable, keep in mind that this is an action taken on the suspicion of criminal activity, and anybody can be suspected.

Our insistence on guns for all, and our fear of terrorism is serving to make us less free, not more – An unintended consequence. An even greater risk to freedom is a conservative idea propounded by Newt Gingrich. Newt would like to bring back the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities. The now disgraced committee was first created as a nazi hunting effort in the 1940s, but is best know for communist hunting in the 1950s.

The committee held hearings and questioned thousands of innocent citizens about their possible membership in the communist party. Are you now or have you ever been a member of the communist party? Lists of people who were suspected of being communists were prepared and circulated. Black lists were created and circulated which often prevented people from getting or holding a job. Lives were destroyed on the basis of suspicions, not proven facts. The term “fellow traveler” came into widespread use during the reign of the committee. Not only were communists and those suspected of being members of the communist party hounded, but also their family, friends and even neighbors.

Simply substitute terrorist for communist and repeat the sordid past. Our steadfast refusal to take reasonable steps to increase gun safety in this country is having the unintended consequence of decreasing our privacy and ultimately our freedom.

Cell Phones and Cancer, Again

Like the Phoenix rising from ashes, so is the “cell phones cause cancer” meme. The current claim is based on a study done with rats exposed full body for nine hours a day for several months. The result was a statistically significant increase in two types of tumors, gliomas and schwannomas. Gliomas are tumors in glial cells of the brain and are rare, the incidence in 2008 was less than 7 per 100,000. In this study the schwannomas were found in heart cells and are even rarer. Important also was the fact that there was a dose-response relationship. Higher intensity cell phone radiation produced a greater incidence of tumors.

So is it time to keep that phone on speaker and never, never carry it around in your bra? Maybe not, at least the bra part. Where as there were increased tumors observed in male rats, there was no increase in tumors in females regardless of the dose (intensity of radiation.) That in itself is a problem as both male and female rats have glial and schwann cells so why were only the males affected?

The bigger problem with a link between cell phones and cancer is the fact that it is biologically implausible. Cell phones utilize radio waves as do WiFi, TV, microwaves and others. This is the lower energy form of electromagnetic radiation that does not cause ionization and therefore doesn’t cause chemical reactions. A chemical reaction is required to cause a mutation in DNA and hence initiate cancer. Higher energy radiation known as ionizing is a well know cause cancer. Too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is the most common cause of cancer. X-rays are also a known cause of cancer.

The history of cell phones and cancer is somewhat odd. In 1989 Susan Reynard , 31, was diagnosed with an astrocytoma, a tumor of the astrocytes which is another type of brain cell. The tumor, in the eyes of her husband resembled the outline of a cell phone – just like she held it to her head. She died in 1992 and her husband sued the phone manufacturer and service provider claiming a causal link between her cell phone use and the tumor which killed her. He lost the suit.

A number of studies with laboratory animals and epidemiological studies with humans have been been conducted over the years with variable outcomes. Studies with animals always suffer from the fact that there may be physiological differences between us and other animals, hence risk factors will be different.

Even without a controlled study the connection between brain cancer and cell phone use seems sketchy. Whereas the incidence of brain cancer has remained relatively steady over the past few decades, use of cell phones has increased several hundred fold. It is estimated that 91% of adults in the US use cell phones.

Epidemiological studies look at the relationship between disease and human population factors. The most accurate are prospective studies where a group a people are followed over a long time span to see if there is a correlation with a disease and their exposure. A prospective study concluded in 2011 confirmed this lack of a relationship. Thousands of participants across 13 countries were followed for close to a decade. The was no discernible relationship whatsoever between cell phone use and cancer.

International Trade

President Obama recently traveled to the east side of the pacific rim for an official visit to several countries including Vietnam and Japan. Conservatives feel that he has not been strong enough with foreign affairs and have therefore labeled his trip an apology tour, as if he is there to apologize for past wars.

Realistically this trip is not about the past but rather signals a recognition of the future and the importance of trade with some of the emerging economies of the region. In the past the far east has been thought of as the place where American jobs have gone. Cheap labor, and fewer regulations means goods are cheaper to produce. The countries then turn around and sell these cheaper goods back to us.

As these eastern economies expand with production and trade, money is put into the hands of a growing middle class which could mean customers for our labor force.

This brings us to a proposed trade agreement called the Trans Pacific Partnership. It involves 12 pacific rim countries. On the western side are Canada, the United States, Mexico, Peru and Chili; on the east, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Singapore, and Japan. The foreign ministers of all 12 participant nations signed a draft framework for the trade deal which is meant to reduce tariffs and increase free trade among the partners.

Previous legislation has given President Obama “fast track” authority to negotiate trade deals. The TPP like other trade deals require legislative authorization, but the fast track law means that congress can only vote up or down on a trade deal, rather than endlessly amend or modify a deal.

Considerable controversy surrounds the deal. The left feels that it gives large corporations too much power in trade, at the expense of the environment and worker’s rights. The right, well the right just doesn’t like Obama and is reluctant to give him anything that resembles success. The pressure of an election year only adds to the distrust of the two sides.

Those that do favor the deal suggest that no deal means even less protection for the environment and worker’s rights. The simple fact remains that we live in the time of a global economy. Just because we decide not to participate in trade deals doesn’t mean that the world economy halts. Trade will go on and we will have even less influence.

At the end of World War II, we were the last man standing, the only industrialized economy unscathed by war. Then we could command the global economy. That control has slowly been eroding. Europe, Japan, and now China have expanded their economies and are replacing American goods around the world. Increasingly the pacific rim is becoming a player and if we don’t agree to trade, we will be left further behind.