Category Archives: Uncategorized

Europe Gets It

Donald Trump, early in his presidency stated his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a voluntary agreement to which every nation around the world is a signatory. The scientific consensus around the world is that the planet is warming and humans are the cause. The response of the rest of the world is to work towards reducing the damage by limiting the use of fossil fuels as a major step.

President Trump’s position however is: “as of today the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country. This includes ending the implementation of the nationally determined contribution…”

Wind and solar, as replacements for coal are already the less expensive alternative for generating electricity. Leaders around the world know this and are implementing the use of renewable energy as a cost-saving measure in addition to reducing global-warming carbon emissions. Much of Europe is ahead of the curve. Below are the highlights of a few European countries energy mix.

Of course, some countries have natural advantages: Switzerland is mountainous, Denmark windy, and Spain sunny. Ninety-seven percent of Switzerland’s electrical energy is produced from hydropower. In terms of potential expansion, hydropower is difficult because in the developed world, most of the good sites are already developed.

Denmark is currently a wind energy leader, both in installed capacity and technology companies focused on wind technology. Over 60 percent of total electric generation is renewable, most of that coming from wind. Denmark utilizes much off-shore wind where turbines are larger and the winds stronger and more consistent, all of which lowers the cost.

As noted Spain benefits from the sun, but also some hydro. Their total fraction for renewable energy is 40%. Over half of that is solar photovoltaic arrays with some solar thermal plants. Surprisingly, about 4% is from geothermal which is tens times as much on a percentage basis than the United States.

Germany is interesting, they are not especially blessed with wind or solar but are working hard to utilize these sources none the less. Germany relies on coal and nuclear, both of which they plan to phase out in the not too distant future. Their renewable energy is now about 30%. Wind generation is spread across the Republic but especially in the north and off-shore in the Baltic and North Seas. Solar PV installations dominate in Southern Germany but there is much rooftop solar as far north as Cologne. For reference that is farther north than Winnipeg, Canada.
Compare the USA at 18% total renewables, 7% hydro, 6% wind, and 1% solar, with solar the fastest growing. With our vast potential for both wind and solar, we could be leading the world. More wind turbines and solar panels are needed but also needed is the infrastructure create a robust electrical grid. Particularly needed is transmission capacity to move an abundance of wind energy from the Midwest.

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

Hybrid, Plug-in Hybrid, and Full Electric Cars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Voting – Compassion vs Fear

Most of the campaigns where the race is truly competitive, say within a five-point spread, are making their closing arguments. They are focusing on a message that has been honed over a year or so of campaigning.

In campaigns which involve national issues and even some local ones which have become nationalized a couple of central themes have evolved. Democrats are delivering a more positive message of the importance of compassion, health care, and civil and human rights whereas Republicans operate more on fear, fear of violence, fear of immigrants, and essentially fear of “others.”

Stepping away from the labels of Democrat and Republican and using the proxy of liberal and conservative, there is good evidence from psychological and even neurophysiological data for these different approaches to campaigning. It is not only what you think but actually how you think – how your brain responds to subject matter and what part of the brain is activated.

First the more obvious sources of difference between liberals and conservatives. Upbringing, education and personal experiences all influence our political attitudes. Two of these are easily observed. College students from conservative communities as freshmen in college tend to vote much like their parents. Graduate students from those same communities tend to vote much less conservatively. A liberal education actually does make one more liberal. Buzzwords like egghead, ivory tower and over educated are used almost exclusively by conservative commentators when describing liberals, never visa versa.

Women tend to be more liberal than men most likely due to personal experiences. Women are more likely to support collective actions which protect a broader swath of society such as children, minorities, ethnic groups, and the LGBTQ community. Conservatives are more of the “rugged individualists” where experience has shown them that personal actions are more important – being the soldier, the protector of the family, the breadwinner.

Of course all of the above are very broad generalizations and exceptions abound but the data are robust and come from very large data sets in well-controlled studies.

These themes are seen clearly in campaign verbiage. No better example is the issue of border protection and immigration. Republicans believe that building a wall at our southern border will protect us from immigrant hordes of murderers, rapists, and drug gangs. A recent twist is that immigrants from Central America will bring disease to our shores. One commentator claimed that they will bring Small Pox, a disease which no longer even exists. It was eradicated by an international vaccination program almost 40 years ago. He also warned of a biblical plague of leprosy, a disease easily treated with antibiotics.

They believe that blocking immigration from predominantly Muslim countries will prevent terrorism in our country while the only real current terrorist threat is from indigenous white nationalists. Recently pipe bombs have been mailed to news agencies and democratic politicians, and a gunman murdered eleven at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Democrats believe in an immigration policy that controls our borders while at the same time recognizing that migrants fleeing violence should be treated with dignity and respect. They don’t believe in open borders, regardless of what Republicans claim.

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

Electrifying Transportation

As of 2017, the United States regained the position of the world’s top oil producer. We now produce 15 million barrels per day (mmbd) of crude oil. That’s the good news, the bad news is that we consume 20 mmbd. The difference is made up from imports. Dependence on imported oil puts our markets at risk to forces beyond our control. A supply disruption in any overseas market would affect the price of oil here as oil is traded internationally.

As an example, we don’t buy oil from Russia or Iran, but if some or all of their production is taken off the world market, the price we pay for even domestically produced oil will rise. Oil is a fungible commodity and the price is set by international supply and demand.

Virtually all the crude oil we use goes to the manufacture of fuel- gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel for transportation. Conflict overseas could cost us dearly at the pump. All our other energy sources such as natural gas, nuclear, and renewables are produced exclusively here in the United States and therefore much less subject to the vagaries of the international markets.

The sensitivity of our transportation system to price fluctuations could be greatly reduced by a rapid conversion to electric powered vehicles because crude oil is not involved in the production of electricity.

Intense research is increasing the efficiency of renewable batteries. At the same time, economies of scale from increased production is lowering the cost. The technology already exists or is in pilot scale production for everything from passenger cars to big rigs like 18-wheelers.

Most automakers are already producing plug-in hybrids. These are really electric vehicles with a limited range, up to 50 miles. They also, however, have small gas engines that act as generators to power the vehicle after the battery charged from the grid is exhausted. Less common but in production are more exotic vehicles like the Tesla or the more mundane Chevrolet Bolt. These vehicles are total electric cars with ranges between charges of over 250 miles. As charging stations are built out, these total electric vehicles will rapidly replace the passenger vehicle fleet.

The production of electric light-duty delivery trucks trails passenger cars but not by much. Fleet delivery vehicles with limited daily range requirement are an ideal market. Daily round trips back to a station house for overnight recharge would actually help the electrical grid, as excess power already exists at night. Ryder Trucks has just ordered hundreds of electric trucks from a start-up company in – where else – California.

Buses for everything from rural schools to urban transportation systems are coming into play. Blue Bird Bus Company is now taking orders for electric buses to be delivered this year.

Most surprising is the advent of all-electric Semis. Elon Musk of Tesla and Space-X fame is now building prototypes of electric Semis with 80,000 lb Gross Vehicle Weight. These are the industry standard currently fueled by diesel that fills the interstates and move over half the freight in the United States. Tesla’s Semi is designed for a range of 500 miles and a recharge time of half an hour.

Trump, Military at Cross Purposes

Recently, President Trump without acknowledging the actual name of the bill signed into law the “John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019.” The omnibus military spending bill outlines how over 700 billion dollars will be spent by the Pentagon. A number of interesting expenditures will address Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) which continues the trend begun by President Obama to ready the military for the effects of global warming.

Language in the bill calls attention to sea level rise and the impact on coastal areas of erosion and possible contamination of drinking water via salt intrusion. Currently, the Naval Academy in Maryland is experiencing increased flooding due to storm surges. The bill specifies that for any new military construction in a 100-year floodplain, the design must include an additional two feet above previous base flood elevation.

Also in the bill is concern for the warming Arctic. The rapid warming has created an increased focus on the north pole as a theater of concern. Both China and Russia have shown increased military activity in the area. Whereas Russia has a fleet of twenty-five icebreaker vessels, the US has only two. Six new icebreakers will be funded in the bill.

A recent Pentagon study discusses not only the ravages of sea level rise but also the effects of drought, wildfires, heat stress, and other extreme weather events at US bases here and around the world. Increasing calving of glaciers means an increase threat of icebergs. A warmer climate is increasing the spread of insect disease vectors which will impact military personnel.

At the same time that Congress is funding military concern for AGW, the white house continues to deny. During the 2016 presidential campaign then-candidate Trump famously decried concern for global warming and climate change by calling it a Chinese hoax, cooked up to make us spend money unnecessarily and thereby put us at an economic disadvantage. As president, Trump has acted on his belief by working to roll back regulations meant to address AGW.

President Trump’s position flies in the face of the global scientific consensus. Every scientific body around the world has agreed that AGW is real and needs to be addressed. Every government around the world agrees and has signed on to a collective effort to address AGW, with the singular exception of the world’s largest economy, the United States. Actually, we are signed on, but President Trump has expressed his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in 2020, the earliest possible date outlined in the agreement.

The regulations being challenged are meant to reduce the use of fossil fuels which release greenhouse gases that contribute to AGW. Regulations include the Energy Star rating system, increasingly strict emissions standards for cars and light trucks, and the Clean Power Plan.

These absurd conflicting interests, military spending to mitigate AGW and President Trump’s actions to aggravate AGW, do harm to our economy and make us look foolish to the rest of the world. Just another day in Trump’s America.

Miniaturization

In the mid -1960s, IBM corporation introduced the S/360 computer. This computer is thought of as ushering in the modern computer age. IBM executives, especially Thomas Watson, Jr, literally bet the company on this one product – and won. The machine and subsequent later generation models were widely accepted and employed in both science and industry. The term computer systems originated to a large degree because of the interoperability of the IBM machines.

The 360 and its ancillary input devices such as card readers, and keyboards, output printers, card punch machines, and tape drives for storage could fill a good a good sized room.

Compare that with a current model cell phone which are hundreds of thousands of times smaller, yet have computational powers billions of times that of the IBM 360. In fact, one of today’s cell phones has millions of times the computational power of all the NASA computers used to develop and guide the Apollo Missions to the moon. And a cell phone, besides its communications functions, does so much more – cameras for still and motion photography, mapping functions from GPS signals, and an ever expanding group of applications.

This is without doubt the best example of miniaturization, ever more power in an increasingly smaller package. It certainly isn’t the only example however. About the same time as the figurative launch of the IBM 360 was the literal launch of the first commercial communications satellite, Telstar. This satellite, built by Bell Labs and utilized by a consortium of communications companies delivered phone and television signals across the Atlantic.

The satellite itself was about 3 feet in diameter and weighed a couple of hundred pounds. The signal strength was weak so the ground station which handled the signals was huge. The antenna dish needed to track the satellite was housed in a radome the size of a 14 story office building. The elliptical orbit of the satellite meant that it was capable of only 20 minutes transmission time out of its 2.5 hour orbit of the planet.

Recently a group of “cubesats” were launched. These mini satellites are smaller than a thin paperback book. Only four were launched but the plan is to launch hundreds of these “space bees” to be placed in geostationary orbits around the world. Their purpose is to tie the Internet of Things together in one massive globally connected group of devices. Radios to refrigerators, toasters to televisions, all will interconnect via the space bees.

The medical field is seeing the application of miniature devices. A device the size of a pack of chewing gum has been designed to monitor several blood components and send the data via a Bluetooth connection. Right now device is designed for hospital use collecting data from drainage tubes employed after surgery. In the not to distant future and with continuing miniaturization, I can envision devices the size or grains of rice circulating in our bodies and sending back information on any number of biological parameters.

Miniature medical devices may go far beyond data collection and be used to correct conditions. Marrying tiny electronic devices with molecular scale creations such as antibodies will not only be able to detect but even correct numerous disease conditions. While siting on your couch or running at the beach, your phone signals you that devices within you have detected malignant liver cells. Not to worry – there’s an app for that! Problem found and corrected.

Opioid Addictions

Once again, and for all the wrong reasons, we are at the top of a list. Arkansas leads the nation in childhood abuse of opioids. Basically, our teenagers consume more prescription pills and various street drugs such as heroin than those of any other state.

Opioids include drugs, whether legal or not that are derived from the Opium poppy – codeine and morphine, also semi-synthetic drugs that are made by chemical conversion of opium – notably oxycodone and hydrocodone. Fentanyl and related compounds (congeners) are made completely synthetically.

The only difference among these drugs is relative potency, the amount (dose) necessary to produce a given effect. The range is incredibly broad. Fentanyl and its congeners are hundreds, even thousands of times as potent as morphine. Emergency personnel have been poisoned by simply touching pills. The adage “one pill can kill” is frighteningly true.

The death rate due to this epidemic is rising and seems to cross all lines – red states and blue states, rich states and poor states. The top ten states for death rates include both the poorest and richest states based on income.

In some states there seems to be a concerted effort to oversell prescription drugs. Over a recent 5 year period, 780 million pills were shipped to West Virginia. Its population is only 1.8 million. Every man, woman and child received the equivalent of over 400 pills! It is no wonder that they lead the nation in opioid overdose deaths.

The numbers are no less staggering in Arkansas. In 2016 physicians prescribed 236 million opioid pills. That’s about 80 pills per person. Almost half of all adults filled one or more prescriptions that year. In Arkansas, someone’s son or daughter dies on a near daily basis from an opioid overdose.

A coalition of cities and counties in Arkansas recently sued dozens of makers and distributors of opioids, arguing that the companies should bear the cost of drug abuse in the state. Whereas this should help with prescription drugs it may drive those already addicted towards street drugs which are much more dangerous due to the unreliability of dosages and the vagaries of intravenous drug use.

Some states have begun needle exchanges to reduce the secondary infection rate due to shared needles. New York City has gone so far as to create safe sites where clean needles and a safe location for injection are provided.

A silver lining to the opioid cloud may be about to appear in Arkansas. Studies consistently show that states with medical marijuana have much lower rates of opioid overdose deaths. Researchers examined medical marijuana laws and death certificate data in all 50 states between the years of 1999 and 2010. At the time, only 13 states had medical marijuana laws. It was obvious that the rates of fatal opioid overdoses were lower in states that had legalized medical marijuana.

The effect seems to be due to the lower use of legal opioids among those who have access to marijuana. Ironically the federal government classifies marijuana as a schedule one chemical or substance – drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

Biodiversity = Sustainability

Ask ecologists what is the best measure of the health of an environment and they will tell you diversity. There are a multitude of ecological niches from the frozen tundra to boiling hot springs, from bone dry deserts to ocean expanses. In every case, greater biodiversity signals greater productivity and hence greater sustainability. Broader plant diversity means more food available to herbivores, and more herbivores makes for more prey animals.

Homo Sapiens, the only species on the planet that is actually capable of thinking about its impact, doesn’t. At least not much. We might forgive our Ice Age ancestors for wiping out most the megafauna on the planet because they didn’t realize their impact, but whenever humans showed up on the scene large animals disappeared. Other than Africa where we co-evolved with several large mammals, few are left around the world. Even the African species are dwindling.

The slaughter began as modern humans migrated out of Africa as early as 100,000 years ago. Europe, Asia, Australia and finally the Americas saw the rapid disappearance of large mammals. Some blame may be placed on changing climate, especially what is called the Holocene extinction at the end of the last glacial period, about 12,000 years ago. This period coincided with human migration into the Americas. Not only did the more northerly megafauna disappear but others such as a giant beaver as big as a compact car and a giant ground sloth which towered over 20 feet tall.

A similar rapid extinction took place when humans made their way to Australia about 40,000 years ago. A prehistoric marsupial weighing in at 3 tons disappeared shortly after human arrival. Also on the extinct list are a 2 ton Goanna (lizard), a turtle with a shell diameter of over 6 feet, and 500-pound flightless bird.

Probably the best-known example of a human-caused extinction is that of the Dodo, a 50 pound flightless relative of pigeons. Over a very short period of time it was extirpated from its island in the Indian Ocean. The Dodo was first seen by Dutch Sailors in 1598. It was gone from history by 1662, a species driven to extinction over the course of one human lifetime.

At the same time that we drive wild megafauna to extinction, we are replacing them with a very limited number of livestock, principally cattle, sheep, hogs and chickens and little else.

The combined mass of humanity is currently around 300 million tons, that of our livestock, 700 million tons. Compare that with the combined weight of everything from beavers to blue whales, which adds up to only 100 million tons. There are 200,000 wolves in the wild compared to 400 million dogs. Our closest relative the chimpanzee number about a quarter million compared to 7.6 billion of us.

The last western Black Rhino died in 2011, the last male Northern White Rhino died last month, leaving two infertile females of the species. Biodiversity means resilience means sustainability. What is our plan for our descendants?

Yet Another Dam?

Here in and about the river valley, we enjoy what could be described as plentiful rainfall, and a pinch of snowfall on occasions. In all, we average about 50 inches a year. Precipitation is generally spread over every month of the year with maximums occurring in the spring and early winter months. For the time being, we have sufficient water for both agriculture and drinking water, but this will change in the future. Growth alone will mean that we need to expand our drinking water supplies.

If the projections of computer models continue to correctly predict changing climate, we’re in for more trouble. Generally, global warming should mean more rainfall as warmer air can hold more moisture, but computer modeling predicts changing weather patterns with less rainfall in mid-continental regions and more on the coasts. Further confounding the issue of water availability is the prediction that what precipitation we do get will come in more intense and less frequent storm events.

Even if we get the same amount of precipitation, but it occurs less frequently, we will need more reservoir capacity to tide us over between rain events. Where will we get our drinking water in the future? In the 1980s City Corp looked to the North Fork of the Illinois Bayou as a possible site for a reservoir. Objections from the environmental community and the Ozark National Forest shifted the attention to the current site on Huckleberry Creek. The watershed of Huckleberry Creek is not large enough, but the reservoir is supplemented by pumping water out of the Illinois Bayou.

This “off-stream pumped storage” option has served the River Valley well for a couple of decades, but now City Corp is looking again to expand its supply by seeking an impoundment on the North Fork. Aside from environmental groups’ objections, and reservations on the part of the National Forest to cede land, there is the considerable expense of constructing a dam. If constructed this impoundment will flood a near pristine area currently used for hunting, fishing, camping, and other water sports.

And when this small impoundment’s capacity is exceeded, then what is the next valley to be flooded? And the next and the next? Ultimately the real long-term solution is to draw water from Lake Dardanelle. Why don’t we just cut to the chase and avoid the costs, both fighting with environmental groups and the monetary cost of construction of dams.

Water in Lake Dardanelle is good quality and can be further refined if necessary by technology. Reverse Osmosis (RO) is employed around the world to turn seawater in the potable water. RO systems are scaled from under the sink units for homeowners to multi-million gallons per day systems for municipal desalination plants.

The Arkansas Department of Health frowns on the utilization of the Arkansas River as a drinking water supply, but their objections are based on old data, and failure to recognize drastic improvements in the cost and efficiency of Reverse Osmosis technology.

Minimally treated water from lake Dardanelle could be pumped to the current Huckleberry Creek reservoir at a fraction of the cost of building more impoundments. This solution will allow us to have the drinking water we need for an expanding population under pressure from global warming. At the same time, we can save some of our wild places so our children and their children can have the experience of a relatively unexploited environment, the same as we enjoy.