Author Archives: bob

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,

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.

Flowering Plants

This time of year there is an explosion going on. The woods around my house are exploding with flowers. Flowering plants, known as angiosperms, are one of natures great inventions. Of course I use the phase loosely, flowering plants came about due to evolution.

The first life on the planet was a very simple single-celled organism. Life was simple and relatively unchanged for a billion or two years until the evolution of a specialized type of organism known as cyanobacteria, often improperly referred to as blue green algae. These “critters” changed the world.

They were the first photosynthetic organisms which means they used sunlight to fix carbon from the atmosphere, producing oxygen in the process. It took another couple of billion years for the oxygen produced by these organisms to saturate the atmosphere to anything like the concentration that exists today.

It took another billion years for more complex, multi-cellular plants to show up on land, something that we would recognize as plants. Simple organisms such as mosses and liverworts were the first. Plant complexity expanded over millions of more years to include the gymnosperms. A giant leap evolutionarily occurred with the plant sex. This favored more rapid evolution and greater adaptability of plants. Pollen from pines is the male part of plant sexuality. I mean really, do the males have to coat everything for miles around with their sperm?

Last to show up evolutionarily in the plant kingdom are the flowering plants – the angiosperms. They date to about two hundred million years ago. The flowering plants including trees and grasses that now dominate much of the land surface of the globe. A key to the success of flowering plants are the symbiotic partnerships which form between pollinating organisms and the plants. Plants produce sweet nectar, attractive colors and odors all to attract pollinators. Some produce odors resembling that of a decomposing corpse to attract flies for pollination.

Hummingbirds just arrived at my feeder a couple of days ago. They always arrive with the blooming of trumpet honeysuckle. These long tubular flowers are adapted to and provide nectar for hummingbirds who act as the primary pollinators.

Some orchids induce pollination via male bees by producing a flower that actually stimulates the bee to have sex with the flower. The attraction is both physical and by odor – the orchid produces a pheromone used by female bees to attract males.

Seed dispersal is important to the success of flowering plants. The energy a plant expends to produce a succulent fruit will go a long way to aid reproduction via seed dispersal by the animal that consumes the fruit. Many plants produce attractive nutritious fruits but toxic seeds. The fruit is eaten but the seed then excreted undigested, with added fertilizer from the animal excreted with the seeds.

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


Social Distancing and Internet Access

The titanic impact of COVID-19 is driving us to an increasingly digital existence. People that can, work from home. Many if not most universities have shifted to online classes. In some locales, K-12 students need access to the internet.

Electronic data shared between physicians, clinics, and hospitals is greatly aiding the sharing of information about the impact of our pandemic and how we can manage it. Broadband access is now not just a luxury but a necessity of life in the age of a pandemic where social distancing is of utmost importance. A real problem exists with rural areas however because it just isn’t there in many places.

Throughout the previous century and into the 21st, there has been a gradual population shift from rural to urban locales. Early on this was dominated in a shift from subsistence farming to a reliance on cash crops. Later, it was driven by the mechanization of farming technology.

Rural electrification bolstered the success of rural life. President Roosevelt signed an executive order in 1935 which was followed later with legislation creating the Rural Electrification Administration. Were it not for this act, life in rural areas would have disappeared even faster. Electrification brought some parity to rural life compared to life in the cities.

As we now rapidly transition to the age of the internet, there is a new form of disparity between the cities and rural areas. Access to broadband internet is becoming essential to both learning and earning in contemporary society. Increasing numbers of jobs depend absolutely on broadband internet. With quality internet access, many jobs could come back to rural areas. Rural life is inherently attractive to many but there has to be an income source

The value of broadband internet has been recognized now and even the smallest schools have access. But what about when the children go home? Not so much. The best method for broadband is fiber optic cables but the cost for rolling out the cable is unattractive to commercial entities. Broadband can be delivered via a cell phone signal to many rural areas, but again low population densities mean low income for private investment.

The Ozarks present a particular difficulty because of the topology, deeply cut serpentine valleys mean even more towers are necessary for complete coverage. It is time to consider a significant effort to support bringing broadband internet to rural areas, just like rural electrification. In fact, the electric coops could act to broker the delivery. The poles to string cables are already there. It would require an expansion of the skill set for the coops to manage internet connections, but that in itself would bring jobs back.

It’s time to bridge the digital divide and bring our rural areas into the twenty-first century. Children at home need access to high-speed internet. Modern home security systems require connectivity, even many personal health notification devices for the elderly require access.

We will get through this pandemic but we need to redouble our efforts to keep all of our society connected via broadband access. Everyone, both urban and rural needs to included in our civilization.

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

Dealing with an Epidemic

Unless you live under a rock, you are at least aware that we have a viral infection rearing its head in the United States. Whether you call it an epidemic or a pandemic is immaterial. It began most likely in a market in Wuhan, China where any number of wild animal meats were on sale. Bats have been suggested but it isn’t yet clear.

The infection due to this virus is called COVID-19, as it is a member of a group of viruses known as corona viruses and it appeared in 2019. The virus itself has been given the name SARS-CoV-2 – short for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome second corona virus.

The first response by the government has been to close our borders to countries where an infection is already established. This response was too little too late. It appears the virus has been circulating in the United States for weeks now. There are reported cases in 15 states and 6 known fatalities. As a respiratory virus, its symptoms are similar to the annual flu but more lethal. It also seems to be more transmissible.

Meanwhile, on the economic front, the Federal Reserve has taken a step to stimulate business by lowering the rate it charges to loan money. The idea is to stimulate economic activity and get folks out to spend money. Weird huh? On the one hand, we are told to stay home to avoid the possibility of person to person transmission and at the same time get out in the public and spend to get the stock market value back up.

The Whitehouse proposed a couple of billion dollars to fight the epidemic and the Democrats have proposed much more. Even if approved it is not clear how this money will be allocated. Obviously a vaccine must be at or near the top of the list. Testing equipment and medical supplies from face masks to respirators are needed. Most important is to disrupt person to person contact. Officials have recommended the usual hand washing and if you exhibit symptoms, stay home – don’t go to work or school.

But here our for-profit healthcare system begins to fail us. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, a former drug company executive and pharmaceutical lobbyist, said that although he would want to make it affordable, he won’t promise that it will be. You hear all the time that related vaccines are “free” but the fine print says “with most insurance.” When the working poor get sick, they don’t stay home. If their children get sick, they go to school. There are a lot of folks whose jobs have no sick leave option – you don’t go to work you don’t get paid.

We need a healthcare system that recognizes it only works if it works for all. Free vaccinations. Full stop, payments to those who shouldn’t be going to work and payments for care of their sick children. And importantly a system that guarantees that they will still have a job if they stay home for an illness.

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

Climate Modeling

Among the many challenges to the dire predictions of global warming and climate change is the questioning of the accuracy of computer models that predict how bad it will get and when will it get there. The short answer is the models are good, not just good but very good. If we look back fifty years when computers were in their infancy and the models very crude we see a considerable congruency between what was predicted and what is happening.

Predictions about global warming are not new by any measure. As early as the beginning of the 19th century, over 200 years ago, scientists recognized that the atmosphere may be capable of trapping heat. Probably most important in the history of global warming and climate change is the work of Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 1903 for his work in understanding certain features of chemical reactions.

Less well known at the time was his work examining the impact of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere on the climate. In 1895, Arrhenius presented a paper to the Stockholm Physical Society titled, “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground.” He mathematically modeled the impact of varying amounts Carbon Dioxide and water vapor in the atmosphere using only pencil, paper and a slide rule.

Climate modeling with computers in the 1970s vastly increased the predictive power but the computer models are only good as the assumptions going into the models. The modeling done and predictions made look good “in the rear view mirror.” There were over a dozen different models and some overestimated warming and some underestimated warming but over all they were surprisingly accurate.

The models erred due to unforeseen changes in the variables . As time goes on however, the unforeseen decreases with better understanding. One example is the NASA model by James Hansen that overestimated the heating. It was due to an unanticipated reduction of Chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere. This decrease came about due to an international effort to deal with the unrelated environmental issue of the Ozone hole.

The computer models calculate the heat input from the sun and output via radiation. Among the variables that impact these calculations are the amount of water in the atmosphere and whether it is in the form of vapor which warms the air, or clouds which reflect the sunlight, creating a cooling effect. The albedo of the planet, that is the reflectivity, is important and varies between land and and sea, and winter and summer due to snow and ice. The temperature of the oceans impacts how much of the greenhouse gases will be absorbed from the atmosphere because the solubility of gases in water is temperature dependent.

Climate modeling gets better by the day. There is no conceivable reason for the world’s scientists to act in concert to defraud the public. That is just silly. It does make sense however for those who profit from pollution to deny the pollution, or try to divert attention from the major culprit – burning fossil fuels.

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

Avian Scavengers

A number of birds will scavenge animal remains of all sorts. The most obvious are vultures but also several birds of prey including eagles, crows and even smaller birds such as roadrunners and Jays. This is an important ecological service to clean up what could otherwise be a source of disease. Actually some of the scavenging birds not specially adapted to the lifestyle can become ill from eating carrion.

Some scavenging birds, including our national symbol the bald eagle, are on occasion poisoned with lead bullet fragments in gut piles left over from field-dressed deer. A couple of lead fragments the size of a grain of rice can be lethal to an eagle.

The most commonly encountered scavengers are the Black and Turkey Vultures frequently seen cleaning up road-killed armadillos, possums, skunks, etc. They share some features and are distinct in others. They are both dark birds with bald heads. The lack of a feathered pate was thought to be for hygiene but recently its been suggested to be for thermoregulation. They also share incredibly acidic stomachs. The gastric juices of the Turkey Vulture are more acidic than a car battery and nearly one hundred times as acidic as our stomachs.

Vultures literally turn down their temperature at night by several degrees. In the morning they can be seen with their wings spread wide to the sun. Another method of temperature regulation involves urohidrosis, defecating down their legs in hot weather. This provides some cooling and may also be beneficial in the management of bacteria on their legs.

If approached by a predator or human for that matter they vomit. Some authors suggest this is a defensive action, as their vomitus is so acidic that it can cause burns. Other authors disagree, but all agree that the loss of the vomitus lightens the body weight to aid take-off for escape. Neither variety of vulture has a syrinx so they can only make grunting or hissing noises.

Black Vultures are slightly smaller than the Turkey Vulture. They have a poor sense of smell, therefore they detect a meal via keen eyesight. They will frequently soar higher than other vultures and follow them to a carcass. Black Vultures can show up in large numbers during the birth of livestock. Not only will they consume the afterbirth but also attack and kill newborn animals, and hence can constitute a serious agricultural pest.

Turkey Vultures are slightly larger and have a distinctive red head. Also, they have a somewhat brownish tinge to their feathers when viewed up close. They have the keenest sense of smell among birds. They tend to soar somewhat closer to the ground sniffing constantly for the odor of a carcass.

The importance of vultures was highlighted in India and Pakistan a decade ago. When the vulture population crashed due to the presence of a toxic (to vultures) arthritis drug in cattle carcasses, stray/feral dogs stepped up to fill the niche as scavengers. The dog population rapidly increased as did rabies. It caused a spike in human deaths due to rabies from dog bites.

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

Feedback Accelerates Global Warming

Positive feedback to global warming keeps climate scientists up at night. Feedback can accelerate the rate of change in the climate. The worst-case scenario involves tipping points where the heating of the air and water make parts of the planet uninhabitable.

A frightening irony concerning global warming is the use of air conditioning to combat the heat. We obviously don’t think about cooling our homes and offices right now, but that is part of our problem. Using air conditioning requires power to generate the necessary electricity. The electricity comes to a large degree from burning fossil fuels which contribute to global warming. This short term reaction to a meteorologic phenomenon contributes to a long term climatological phenomenon.

Climate scientists call this positive feedback. Burning fossil fuels to run air conditioners contributes carbon dioxide to the atmosphere which traps heat and makes the planet warmer, which requires more air conditioning, which causes carbon dioxide release which causes more heating which… You get the picture.

In this case, the feedback has a human element. Other feedback loops are purely physical phenomena. These feedback loops add to the complexity of climate modeling. Predictions of future climate rely on computer calculations, the accuracy of which depends on how well the variables in a climate system are understood.

Water vapor in the atmosphere is without question the most important of the global warming feedback loops. Water vapor is a strong greenhouse gas itself; that is, its presence in the atmosphere traps heat and contributes to global warming. The positive feedback comes about because the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere is directly proportional to the temperature of the atmosphere. The hotter the atmosphere the more water vapor, the more water vapor in the atmosphere, the more heat trapped in the atmosphere, the more water vapor in the atmosphere, the more… you get the picture.

When natural gas (methane) is burned it produces carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. Unburned methane released to the atmosphere is itself a potent greenhouse gas. There are vast stores of methane trapped in the permafrost of the tundra and the continental shelf under the oceans. As the planet warms, the permafrost thaws which releases methane. Methane release warms the planet thawing more permafrost which releases more methane which… you get the picture.

The amount of solar heating of the planet is a function of the albedo, the reflectivity of the planet. Sunlight is strongly reflected by snow-covered expanses near the north and south poles. As the climate warms due to global warming, the snow melts exposing soil which is much less reflective.

The less reflective soil traps more heat, warming the planet further, melting more snow, which traps more heat… you get the picture

The same is true of sea ice and the oceans. Ice is more reflective than water. As the ice cover melts, more heat is trapped, as more heat is trapped more ice melts… you get the picture.

A final irony is that as the area of the oceans covered with ice shrinks, it opens more area to exploration and untimely production of crude oil. Burning these fossil fuels adds more carbon to the atmosphere, which warms the planet… I hope you get the picture.

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