Author Archives: bob

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

Weather Problems, Climate Solutions

May is usually a rainy time of the year but this year is special. As I write the Arkansas River is rising to a historic high level. Some homes in low lying areas of Fort Smith and Van Buren are flooded and the crest is still days away. The Interstate 540 bridge over the Arkansas River is closed and some Highways near the river are closing due to flooding. Pope County Judge Ben Cross has suggested that even sections of Interstate 40 may close.

This flooding presents immediate problems for travelers and homeowners alike but also threatens agriculture, the number one industry in Arkansas. Waterlogged fields can’t be planted and this is the planting season. Couple this the self-inflicted wounds of tariff wars with China and one can see that farming in the Arkansas River Valley is in trouble.

Could this particular flooding event have been predicted? Of course not, but the likelihood of the flooding has been predicted. General Circulation Models (GCM,) the computer systems that estimate the effects of climate change due to global warming, indicate that a warmer climate is a wetter climate for the simple reason that warmer air holds more moisture. The models are doing a good job of predicting a general increase is severe weather including storms and flooding in the midwest and midsouth.

Although most Americans accept the reality of man-made global warming, we have yet to demand action to mitigate or reduce the threat. What will it take? What ever steps we take need to be done immediately and with the understanding that the solution will take a long time. It has taken a couple of centuries to increase the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere by 70% but we are realizing the effects at an increasingly rapid rate.

The solution of course is to decarbonize our energy systems. Simply put we need to stop burning stuff to produce energy for industry, to heat and cool our homes and fuel our vehicles. Tremendous strides have been made to lower the cost of wind and solar energy. The next revolution which will make the transition possible is battery storage of the electrical energy. We need an immediate program, a national agenda, to support sustainable energy and suppress carbon emitting fuels.

Democrats have introduced a bill in the US House of representatives to institute a Carbon Fee and Dividend. This will both favor the transition to sustainable energy, but create millions of high tech jobs – jobs that can’t be outsourced as the work must happen here. Additional benefits include a reduction of hundreds of thousands of premature deaths due to improved air quality.

The biggest fear of this transition to a stable future is economic. The fossil fuel industry has tried to paint a sustainable energy future as more expensive but nothing could be further from the truth. The cost of inaction is increasingly expensive. The avoided cost to taking action now, coupled with the reduced costs of wind and solar versus fossil fuels makes for a bright future.

Lower energy costs, more jobs, a more stable climate, and cleaner air – the time has come.

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

Darwin’s Finches

The Galapagos Islands constitute a small group of about a half a dozen islands 600 miles off the coast of South Ameria. The total land area is a scant three thousand square miles, slightly larger than the state of Delaware. The islands are quite arid, averaging only two inches of rainfall a year. They are essentially the cones of volcanoes which arose from the sea a few million years ago.

The archipelago is most famous as a world heritage site and most of the islands are a national park. As a province of Ecuador, the islands are managed mainly and very carefully for preservation and tourism.

One of the first and certainly most notable “tourists” was Charles Darwin. In 1831, Darwin, as a 22-year-old naturalist and recent college graduate signed on to the HMS Beagle for a five-year sail around the world. The Beagle surveyed much of the coast of South America, including the Galapagos. Darwin’s time was spent observing and collecting specimens of the local flora and fauna.

As a geologically young island group, the flora and fauna found their way by air and sea. Sea birds flew, sea lions swam, and a few reptiles and small mammals “rafted” to the islands. When Darwin arrived he noted that there were very few passerines, what we call perching birds or songbirds. Of the passerines, the majority were finches – finches not seen anywhere else in the world. There are now seventeen species of finches recorded on the Galapagos.

Darwin’s observation of the finches was the seminal study that lead to the organizing tenet of biology – descent with modification. Only a single species of finch exists on the west coast of South America, the likely origin of the Galapagos finches. Darwin’s conjecture was that a single species of finch arrived accidentally on the island group.

With local no predators and few competitors, the finches thrived. Through adaptive radiation, they filled many different niches based on the size and shape of their beaks. Birds with big, strong beaks could crack larger seeds, smaller-beaked birds ate smaller seeds. Birds with narrow, pointy bills fed on insects. There is even a species of finch appropriately called the vampire finch that has adapted to pecking the tails of sea birds to drink their blood!

In his first book, “The Voyage of the Beagle,“ he noted “It is very remarkable that a nearly perfect gradation of structure in this one group can be traced in the form of the beak, from one exceeding in dimensions that of the largest gros-beak, to another differing but little from that of a warbler.”

The speciation of these finches is a microcosm of evolution on our planet. Life began over three billion years ago, and for about two billion of those years existed as single-celled organisms much like today’s bacteria. Over time more complex organisms evolved to form the major groups of plants and animals. These discoveries are the essence of science – small careful observations can lead to profound conclusions.
Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Climate Modification

Modern humans are a couple of hundred thousand years old at best – compare that with cockroaches at 350 million years old. Regardless, in our short time on the planet we have worked tirelessly to modify our surrounds to our purposes. Minor reservoirs and irrigation channels are a few thousand years old.

Widespread modification of the soil in the Amazon basin over a thousand years ago was accomplished by building up polders in swampy areas then adding charcoal, bone, pottery shards, and nutrients to greatly improve soil productivity. The result was “terra preta do indio,” a Portuguese phrase meaning black earth of the Indian.

Prior to European colonization of north America, Indians use fire to modify the environment, maintaining grasslands which were more productive for game animals. What many colonists described as a pristine wilderness was actually a maintained mosaic of grasslands and forests.

These small scale environmental modifications pale in comparison to our current unintentional change to the global climate. From wildfires to floods, and hurricanes to droughts, we are having a negative impact on the climate. To retard further degradation of the climate we must rapidly decarbonize our energy systems. The environmental response to this action is however slow.

If we can unintentionally change the climate, surely we can intentionally make it right, right? We can do things to reverse the warming in the atmosphere? There is a recent natural precedent for global climate impact. In 1991, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted violently, sending tens of billions of tonnes of ash and sulfur oxides in the stratosphere. The ash and especially sulfate particles circulated around the world, partially shading the earth. A drop of 0.6 degrees Celsius was recorded in the global mean temperature for 1991-1992.

So there you go, all we need to do is inject massive amounts of sulfur into the stratosphere. The sunlight will be partially shaded, cooling the earth and reversing the heat driven climate change. An engineering research group proposed just such an experiment. Billions of tonnes of molten sulfur would be delivered to the stratosphere via specially designed jet tankers. These would fly sixty thousand flights per year for decades. The scheme has been described as the cheapest and quickest way to cool the planet.

BUT, there is a lot of devilment in the details. Even moderate success may take the pressure off the need to decarbonize our energy systems. This would do nothing to address the damage to the oceans via acidification from the dissolved Carbon Dioxide. And that sulfur mist in the atmosphere? It turns into sulfuric acid, which would untimely rain down on the planet.

A uniformly gray sky could negatively impact crops, energy production from solar and wind, and even seriously change weather patterns – just the opposite of what was desired. A worst-case outcome would be international strife if the experiment did not have a global consensus.

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

Climate Change and the Insurance Industry

The cost of individual weather-related catastrophes is rising and at the same time, they are becoming more common. One measure is to to look at the frequency of events which cost over a billion dollars versus time. In 1988 there was only one event, a drought across a large portion of the United State whereas in 2018 there were ten, including hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, droughts, and floods. This year a new term has come to the fore, the bomb cyclone.

One could show all sorts of trends by picking only two data points especially with weather data which shows a lot of short term variability. But a clear trend exists and global warming can be tied to both the cost and frequency of weather events.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, drought is the one phenomena that worry people the most. Considering drought as just one catastrophe, they have become more intense, and last longer in recent times compared to the past. Not only here in the United States but globally. Many regions in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa are experiencing higher air temperatures, drier air, and more severe droughts. A NASA study has shown that a two-decade-long drought in the Mediterranean Levant is the worst in 900 years.

The economic impact of droughts is due in the main to reduced agricultural outputs, but the heat itself is lethal. In the database of billion-dollar weather events since 1980, four of the top ten most lethal events are heat waves.

The impact of climate-related risks falls most heavily on the insurance industry. Across the board, costs are rising. They are rising for property damage, healthcare costs, and even life insurance. Insurers know this – its what they do. One of the main activities of insurers is to calculate risk so they know how much to charge their customers in premiums. Because of their focus on risk, they know better than most just what the financial impact is of climate change.

The insurance industry holds assets obtained from premiums in investments, not cash. The industry is beginning to shift investments from carbon-intense industries. Eighty of the world’s largest insurers hold fifteen trillion dollars in managed assets. Currently, less than one percent of the investments are in low carbon industries that provide a solution to climate change.

California’s Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones leads a group called the Asset Owners Disclosure Project (AODP.) A report from AODP assessed the industry’s investment portfolios and found that leadership in the trend away from carbon-intensive industries is coming from European firms. US firms are at or near the bottom. Some of the biggest firms with the most to lose, giants such as Prudential, AIG, and New York Life are that the bottom of the AODP ratings for attention to climate change.

Personal retirement accounts, in aggregate, are even larger than the insurance industry investments. Increasingly, mutual funds have categories like the Social Choice account at Teacher’s Insurance and Annuity Association. The investment strategy here is to disfavor fossil fuel industries and favor clean energy strategies.

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

Immigration Issues

Recently, President Trump has proclaimed, referring to immigration at our southern border, that we are full. “… We can’t take you anymore. We can’t take you. Our country is full.” But really are we full? The birth rate in the United States has been below replacement level for several decades.

To maintain a stable population there must be 2.1 live births per female. The fertility rate now is less than 1.8 births per female. The average age in the United States has risen by ten years over the last 50 years, from 28 to 38.

Without immigration we would be experiencing negative growth – our population would be shrinking. Some might say that we do have too many here already and we need to shrink our population but that creates a demographic problem. Quite simply a shrinking population is an aging population. An aging population means a shortage of more youthful workers to maintain economic productivity, and provide the tax base to support social programs for the aged.

A rapidly growing population presents its own problems. Rapid growth means a youthful population. A very young population distribution can mean trouble for education and employment. Young , poorly educated, and unemployed could mean disaster. Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria all have an average age under 25. The most extreme are a number of African nations where the average citizen is a teenager.

The current growth rate in the United States is 0.7 %, due to the combination of births, deaths, and immigration. Compare this to the global growth rate of 1.2%. Although the population in both the United States and the world is growing, the rate of growth is slowing for both.

Over the last couple of decades, the immigration rate to the United States has been decreasing. This is partly due to a reduction in the number of migrants from Mexico. Increased prosperity (NAFTA?) has lowered the pressure for impoverished Mexicans to flee to the north.

The current wave of immigration, the infamous caravans, come from a region called the Northern Triangle (of Central America.) Poverty and Violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have driven whole families to risk a perilous journey of over 2000 miles to seek asylum in the United States.

Closing the border will not change the plight of the Central Americans. Besides, the migrants are flocking to legal ports of entry, close those and they will head to more dangerous border crossings in essentially unpredictable areas. Likewise unregulated totally open borders is no solution either.

The current rate of immigration is not particularly high. The only crisis is our inability to rapidly process the claims for asylum. We don’t need walls or barriers to immigration. We need facilities to humanely house the migrants. We need mechanisms to get them to where there are jobs so that they can do what they came for – raise their families in a safe and prosperous environment.

Over the past five years, the Immigration rate for Canada is about twice that of ours, and for Norway three times. We can handle it. Si Se Puede.

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

The Green New Deal

The Green New Deal is a proposal to address global warming and economic inequality. It is widely feared by conservatives as a proposal designed to take away freedom – and cars and money and hamburgers and airplanes. Nonsense.
What it is is a very broad brush plan to eliminate the use of fossil fuels and the release of other greenhouse gases in ten years. Although the timeline is unreasonable, the objective of necessity will be accomplished in the longer term.
Under the plan, sustainable energy sources will be expanded to eliminate the use of fossil fuels for electricity production. Wind and solar with battery backing can eliminate the need for any fossil fuel use for electricity production. This is already underway, as the use of coal has been cut in half in just the last two to three decades.
At the same time, grid-scale batteries are becoming a thing. The City of Fayetteville will soon begin utilizing a ten megawatt solar panel system with energy storage in batteries – intermittency is not an issue with battery backup. Entergy is planning to close two coal fired plants and is building its own solar farms.
In our economy, the transportation sector is the largest user of fossil fuels. Electrification of transportation is in its infancy but happening none the less. Tesla, the biggest manufacturer of electric cars, has sold over a half-million vehicles since they began in 2012. Electric long haul trucks, semis, are in development and will hit the highways in 2020. Electrification of the rails is a no-brainer, it exists already on a limited scale and can be expanded nation-wide.
A tougher nut is aviation. Jet fuel, essentially kerosene made from crude oil, is an ideal energy source as it is very energy dense. To eliminate the use of fossil fuels from aviation will require either of a couple of solutions. The most likely, especially in the short term is to manufacture fuel synthetically from renewable sources.
Biodiesel from oil crops like soybeans is a possibility but would compete with cropland for food production. Better would be the use of waste organic matter as a feedstock for fuel production. This is already happening but needs to be done more efficiently.
Electrification of aviation has already been achieved but is a long way from commercial airlines’ scale. A battery-powered single engine plane with a range of four hundred miles has been flown in England.
The cost of the total conversion to sustainable energy systems will require considerable investment in research and infrastructure, but at the same time it will create quality jobs in an increasingly automated economy. The increased tax revenues from these new jobs can offset some of the costs.
Then there is the issue of what is the cost of doing nothing. Hurricanes in the East, flooding in the Midwest, and wildfires in the West are already costing hundreds of billions of dollars a year and will only get worse from inaction. Our future depends on facing the reality of climate change. The sooner we address the issue the less costly it will be.