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Upcoming Paris Talks

Next month, world leaders from over 190 countries, and scientists that represent governments and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) will meet again, this time in Paris, to try to address the issue of global warming. This is a mind-bogglingly difficult task. Fully 80% of the global economy runs on the energy produced from burning fossil fuels which releases Carbon Dioxide. The CO2 in the atmosphere acts like a blanket trapping heat which results in warming the planet.

The answer is simple and clear, but the solution is anything but. The answer is to stop burning carbon as an energy source. How that is achieved is the crux of the problem. Some say that if we can put a man on the moon, we ought to be able to solve the climate problem. To be honest that was an easy goal to achieve. First and foremost we did it essentially alone. The global warming challenge requires the cooperation of every country on the planet, something which has never happened before.

Our putting a man on the moon also didn’t require any special source of energy or concern for the wastes produced therefrom. To solve the global warming crisis will require a combination of drastic reductions in burning fossil fuels, massive improvements in energy efficiency to reduce demand and an expansion of sustainable non-carbon energy sources over an extremely short time scale, unprecedented in the history of mankind.

Some steps have been initiated in a few countries, most notably Western Europe, where several countries have moved aggressively to deploy wind and solar. On a good day Denmark can get 100 % of its electrical energy needs from wind. Germany is not particularly well situated for solar power yet in 2014 they produced over 6% of the electrical energy from solar PV panels. Even China is reacting. Their current 5-year plan has a goal of over 11% of energy needs from renewable sources. That’s some of the good news, the bad news is that it is not nearly enough.

If the countries could agree to reduce carbon emissions by 20% from the current scenario, over the next 50 years, it will only push back the time it takes to double the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere by 10 years – from 2065 to 2075. Some countries such as those in western Europe have both the technological acumen and the political will to achieve that kind of a goal. Others like the US have the technology but as yet have not expressed the political will to take on the task. And finally much of the rest of the world has neither.

So where does that leave us? Eventually the planet with run out of energetically available fossil fuels, but it doesn’t look like curtailing their use will happen any time soon. Adapting to “a new world order” of the climate variety seems inevitable. If there is one thing we humans do well is adapt. As a species we are very young, but have come out of Africa and covered the globe, occupying every conceivable niche. From the frozen tundra to desiccated wastes of deserts. From lowland swamps to the tops of mountain ranges.

We will pull our cities back from the submerging coasts, and adapt our crops to the hotter regimen. But what about the rest of the biosphere? I suspect we will be adapting to a more biologically barren world.

Mean Coal

To say that every time you flip a light switch, you kill another coal miner would be an outrageous and unsupportable allegation, but we need to think about the costs, in addition to the electric bill, of keeping the lights on.

Close to half of the electricity produced in the U.S. comes from burning coal, and a lot of it. Current use is about a billion tons of coal a year. The costs we pay directly include the actual costs of extraction of the coal, and additional costs tangentially related to coal extraction. The tragic deaths of 29 miners in West Virginia forces us to see these additional costs.

In addition to the deaths from accidents are the more significant but less dramatic deaths from diseases associated with coal mining. Black lung disease is estimated to take 1,000- 3,000 thousand lives per year. Chronic, non-lethal conditions such as related cardiopulmonary diseases affect many, many more miners. If the coal companies pay the health care costs associated with mining, then the cost is added to the price we pay for electricity, but the emotional costs are immeasurable and born by the miners and their families.

We literally have to decide what a life is worth. How much are we willing to spend on our electricity to prevent another death through greater but much more costly safety regulations? Put more bluntly, how many deaths and how much debilitating illness will we tolerate to save money on our electric bill?

Costs which we bear collectively but outside the cost of electricity are more insidious. Severe environmental degradation occurs when mountain top removal strategies are employed to get at coal seams. The tops of mountains are blasted and pushed into surrounding valleys. Acid drainage from various mining techniques can destroy virtually all life in affected watersheds. Emissions from the burning of coal include numerous toxic metals such as mercury, cadmium, lead and arsenic. More radionuclides are released to the environment from burning coal than the total fuel cycle of nuclear reactors. Coal combustion is the major contributor to global warming and and changes in ocean chemistry through acidification.

So the question becomes what do you want to pay for your electricity, in dollars, lives and the environment you leave to our children. The most important thing you can do is examine how much energy you use. You really don’t need kilowatt-hours of electricity. What you want is a warm in the winter, cool in the summer, well-lit house. Or a successful business that meets the customer’s needs.

To a surprising degree, this can be achieved through the utilization of what Amory Lovins calls “negawatts.” That’s the energy you don’t use through efficiency. It’s better than a free lunch, it is a lunch that pays you to eat it! Examples abound: LED light bulbs, attic insulation, shade trees, and clotheslines just to name a few.
Even if we don’t act responsibly, ultimately we will power the world without burning carbon because we will have used up it all up. But we can act responsibly, we can decide that the adoption of a world powered by truly sustainable energy is our best and only future.


Global Warming, Problems and Solutions

The drumbeat to deal with the immediate problem of global warming gets louder. Ice caps are melting and glaciers shrinking at ever increasing rates. Sea levels continue to rise and the oceans are becoming more acidic. 2014 was the hottest year in recorded history and 2015 appears on the way to surpass that. The hottest 10 years on record have occurred in the past 17.

melting glacier

melting glacier

Meanwhile human activities added over 40 billion tons of Carbon Dioxide to the atmosphere in just the last year. Human activities are also increasing the amounts of other climate forcing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Frightening feedback loops serve to intensify the rate of climate change: A warmer atmosphere hold more water vapor, a very strong greenhouse gas in it’s own right. Melting sea ice reflects less solar energy back into space and thawing tundra in the far north releases Methane.

The data from above is measured on a daily basis across the globe. There is no controversy. We are creating a situation that will continue on for generations. The only question is just how badly do we want to burden our children ? The longer we delay the more costly it gets; in environmental degradation, in money, and in human lives.

President Obama has taken a bold step with the clean power plan, which aims to reduce carbon emissions by 30 % compared to 2012 levels by 2030. It is a first step, but only a small one. Basically we have to find alternatives for energy production to replace the use of fossil fuels. The United States is behind many other countries but we have the resources available, wind and solar, to rapidly catch up and become the preeminent power in the world again.

Our heartland, the Midwest, is considered to be the Saudi Arabia of wind, but to properly exploit the resource requires a rapid expansion of the grid to deliver the power to where its needed. Part of the expansion of transmission should pass through Arkansas. Utilities are beginning to show interest, or at least are prodded on by the clean power plan. They tend to favor large “ utility scale” projects for both wind and solar.

Wind resources here in Arkansas are limited but readily available from our neighbors to the west. A utility scale 500 acre solar farm will soon be built near Stuttgart Arkansas. Large scale projects like this are financed by long term contracts with the energy producer and the power companies that have the transmission and distribution capacity to deliver the power to the consumer.

Big power producers and big industries have the lobbying might to bring on the large projects, but that needn’t be the only way to generate large amounts of clean power. If individual home owners and small businesses were afforded the the same long term contracts, there wouldn’t be a need for large tracts of land, only south facing roofs.



You could be a power provider by using the sun falling on your roof everyday. Just measure how much energy your roof can capture, then go to your grid operator and request a long term contract based on the power you could be producing (and profiting from.) With contract in hand go to the bank for underwriting a loan, to be paid for through the power contract. Alternatively lease agreements could still earn a tidy profit.

In Arkansas this could be as simple as the Public Service Commission mandating that long term contracts be available to small producers, just as they are to the big boys. Voila, large scale distributed energy.

Fuel Cell Vehicles

Auto manufacturers, both here and abroad are scrambling to produce electric vehicles. The most successful out of the gun has been the high end Tesla model S. Others include the Nissan Leaf and BMW i3. Chevrolet will be introducing the Bolt in the near future. All these cars are whisper quite and perform well. They all however suffer the drawback of limited range on a charge and a rather long recharge time at least compared to the time to fill a tank of gasoline.

Notably missing from the cars listed above is the world’s largest car manufacturer – Toyota. They set the standard for hybrid cars with the introduction of the Prius in 2001. It is powered by a internal combustion engine (ICE) which is supported by a electric motor and battery that results in quite high mileage compared to other ICE powered cars.

Although Toyota has yet to produce an all-electric car, they seem to be hedging their bet on the development of an alternative to electric cars with batteries. In development is an electric car that runs off of a fuel cell that is powered by Hydrogen. The chemistry of the fuel cell is just the opposite of the high school CHEM class experiment called electrolysis. If you pass an electric current through water it cause the production of Hydrogen and Oxygen from the water. This process consumes electrical energy.

In a fuel cell powered vehicle, hydrogen gas is stored at high pressure in a tank. When electrical energy is needed, the gas is passed into the fuel cell where it combines with oxygen from the air to produce electrical energy. The principle is simple but in practice fuel cells are complex devices that require unique and often expensive catalysts to make the chemical reaction proceed at a sufficient rate to power a vehicle. The real advantage to this technology is the range of the vehicle between refills. It should be possible to store enough Hydrogen in a vehicle to get a lot more range than can be achieved with charging batteries.

A problem with the use of Hydrogen is one of thermodynamics. It takes more energy to produce Hydrogen than you can get back when used. Basically any time you do work, energy will be wasted. Thermodynamically work is the use of energy to drive a process, be it chemical , electrical or mechanical. In the case of Hydrogen energy losses occur when it is created from water by electrolysis, when it is compressed for transportation, when it is decompressed for use, and when it is used in a fuel cell. Each of these processes constitute an inefficiency where energy is lost.

Another problem is that Hydrogen is a gas and somewhat difficult to handle. Hydrogen stored in metal containers, or piped in metal pipes causes embrittlement. The metals become more fragile and likely to fail under pressure on exposure to Hydrogen. It is also problematic in that it has a low energy density by volume. It takes a lot of space to store a given weight of Hydrogen.

Toyota is betting that these difficulties with the production, storage and utilization of Hydrogen can be overcome.


Stormy Weather in the Southern Plains

The recent wave of severe storms, tornadoes and flooding plaguing the southern plains, essentially Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas have cost a over 30 lives, countless injuries and billions in property damage. And it isn’t over yet. Some of the rain and flooding from these storms are breaking all records. One Texas official described the recent rain as “of biblical proportions”

One of the effects of global warming is more severe storms of all kinds – tornadoes, floods, heat waves, hurricanes, etc. Over the following decades we will see these increase in both frequency and severity. As we continue to pump ever increasing amounts of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere, more heat will be trapped, and more heat in the atmosphere is a principle cause of severe weather.

There are a couple of factors involved. A warmer atmosphere means warmer seas, which means more evaporation. Additionally the amount of water vapor that the atmosphere will hold is a function of temperature, the warmer it is, the greater the greater the amount of moisture in the atmosphere. Conditions such as wild fires will also increase, due to “dry thunderstorms.” Lightning and high winds accompany these events where the rain evaporates before it gets to the ground.

And it’s not just the current storms in the southern plains nor the blizzards on the east coast last winter, it is global. Although the Atlantic was rather calm during the traditional hurricane season last year, there was an unprecedented number of severe storms in the eastern Pacific and Indian Ocean nations. Again billions upon billions of dollars of damages and hundreds of lives lost.

An important point to make is that all this accelerated activity correlates with a warmer atmosphere. Can any one storm (or it’s intensity) be blamed on global warming? No, of course not. No more than any one home run by Mark McGwire could be attributed to steroid use.

The type of societal damage from severe storms varies. Flooding causes the most economic injury. Damage to infrastructure, homes and vehicles dominate the costs. Most human deaths in the US are caused by heat waves. Tornadoes cause the most human injuries.

So what can be done? In the long term the solution is obvious – quit burning stuff for energy production. Burning coal, oil and natural gas returns Carbon Dioxide to the atmosphere over a few decades that took many millions years to remove from the atmosphere. The problem is one of recognizing the true costs of energy sources. What we see on our electric bill or at the gas pump only includes the direct costs. The costs of externalities due to severe weather is not included.

How about a weather tax assessed to energy sources driven by fossil fuels? The money from this assessment could be used to rebuild and strengthen infrastructure, subsidize construction of more storm resistant residences, improve drainage, and expand reservoir capacity in drought prone areas just to mention a few. Basically we should use the funds to provide for the general welfare as is called for in our constitution.


rare earth elements

Rare Earth Elements

As is the case in so much manufacturing, China is now the world leader in the production of a class of elements known as rare earths. They are not actually rare in terms of relative abundance in the earth’s crust, Cerium for example is about as common as Copper. The rare part of the name comes from the fact that they are difficult to obtain because they generally don’t occur in high concentration deposits as do better known metallic elements such as Iron, Copper, and Nickel.

Where they are found, the ores occur in lower concentrations and because the various rare earth elements have very similar chemical properties, they are difficult to separate. This makes the processing all the more expensive. Seventeen elements constitute the group, the majority of which occur in the Lanthanide Series of elements.

Although they share much of their chemical properties, each has unique uses especially in electronics and other modern high tech products.

One of the more common is Neodymium (Nd, atomic number 60.) It confers hardness and unique optical properties when used in small amounts as a dopant in glass. This glass is then used in the manufacture of certain kinds of lasers. Nd is also used in an alloy for high strength permanent magnets. Neodymium magnets have the advantage of having a high magnetic field strength to weight ratio. Applications include loud speakers, in-ear headphones and computer disks.

Several of the rare earths were first discovered in Ytterby, a small town in Sweden,. Yttrium (Y no. 39), Ytterbium (Yb 70), Erbium (Er 68), and Terbium (Tb 65) all take their name from the same mine

As noted many modern devices utilize rare earths – electronics, magnets, lasers, batteries, and efficient lightning just to name a few. An obvious modern device loaded with rare earths is a hybrid car. About 28 kilograms (~ 62 pounds) of rare earths go into a hybrid car. That is only a small fraction compared to the total weight, but it is a very important fraction.

Another now ubiquitous device, the cell phone, is chock full of rare earths. The glass is harder, and the speakers and memory are lighter, and the vibrating motors stronger – all due the rare earths.

So what’s the big deal about rare earths? The big deal is that currently China controls 97% of the market on these elements which are so important to modern society and even more importantly to a modern military. Our military is dependent on a foreign power for a strategic material. There are exploitable deposits of rare earths in the United States, but are not mined because of costs.

Efforts are being made to bring the cost of mining and processing of the rare earths down which could make our sources more attractive. That said, applying the same techniques to the richer Chinese deposits will make their materials correspondingly cheaper also.

photo credit:

Global Warming: Questions and Answers

Don’t the record snowstorms hitting the Northeast mean there is no such thing as global warming?

No, not at all. No one single event event, cold or hot, wet or dry, can be blamed on global warming or used to deny global warming. Global warming is due to increased amounts of heat trapping gasses in the atmosphere. A Higher average global temperature is just one outcome. Snowstorms are dependent on atmospheric moisture and warmer air holds more moisture. As long as the temperature at the base of the cloud is below freezing, it will snow. The higher the (below freezing)temperature, the greater the snowfall.

More rainfall will be better for crops then, right?

Not necessarily. Not only is a warmer atmosphere wetter, it is also more dynamic. Severe storms will be more common, including flooding. Even without floods, too much rain can be a problem. Too much rain in the spring can delay planting. Too much rain in the fall can cause problems with harvesting. Both effects will lower crop yields.



Well then at least we don’t need to worry droughts, right?

Not necessarily. Global warming is the cause, climate change is the effect. Climate scientists make predictions for the future climate based on computer algorithms called Global Climate Models (GCMs). There are several of them and they all generally agree. Not only will the atmosphere get warmer but other changes will occur. Rainfall will be greater overall, but the distribution patterns will change. Precipitation in coastal areas will increase but in mid-continental areas it may increase only slightly or actually decrease.



Wait, you can’t have it both ways can you?

Actually yes. Consider the following scenario. Here in Arkansas the climate is predicted to shift from one amenable to mixed hardwoods such as an oak/hickory biome to a more savanna like climate. Rainfall may increase but it will come in fewer, more intense storms. The factor that is most important to plant growth is soil moisture during the growing season. Higher temperatures mean faster evapotranpiration. The Ozarks very well may become a badly eroded prairie-like biome. We are predicted to have more rain but a drier climate.

Even drinking water may become harder to get – or at least more expensive. Fewer but more intense rainfall events means more runoff. This means less recharge of natural aquifers so less well water. Reservoirs will need to be greatly expanded to capture larger rainfall events.

Well, at least it won’t cost so much to heat homes and offices in the winter, right?

OK, I’ll give you this one but over all utility bills may be higher due to the greatly increased demand for air conditioning in warmer months. Summer electric loads are currently higher in the summer than winter, and this differential will expand. Not only will hotter summers cost more, heat waves will become more frequent. Heat waves are already the most lethal extreme weather event.

The climate has changed in the past and we survived. Why is this any different? Climate has changed before but never as rapidly as it is/will be changing in the near future. We will no doubt survive but a lot of plant and animal life won’t. Our future will be hotter, both drier and wetter, more lethal, and less diverse unless we act and act fast.

Temperatiure vs time

Who’s in Charge of Our Enviroment?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a scientific agency established in 1988 by the United Nations. It is comprised of climate scientists from around the world who focus on the risk of global warming and subsequent climate change. With every report, called assessments, the position of the scientific community is louder and stronger – The planet is warming, we are causing it, and we will suffer if we don’t address the root cause, the release of greenhouse gases.

From the most recent (fifth) assessment: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years, and human influence on the climate system is clear. It is extremely likely (95-100% probability) that human influence was the dominant cause of global warming between 1951-2010.”

The IPCC says little about how we should address the problem, only that we have a problem. The solution is to be left to the governments of the world. So for the United States, who is in charge and what do they think?



Jim Inhofe, republican from Oklahoma, is chairman of the senate committee on Environment and Public works. Mr Inhofe is essentially the poster boy for global warming denial. He has even written a book on the subject: The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. He has referred to the IPCC as a “soviet style trial” and the US EPA as a “gestapo bureaucracy.”



Lisa Murkowski, republican from Alaska, is Chairwoman of the senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In the past she has acknowledged that climate change is real and “we need to fight it…it doesn’t make sense to argue about how much global warming is caused by man — whether it’s 5 percent or 50 percent.“ That said, her actions speak louder than her words. She introduced a resolution to bar the EPA from regulating carbon emissions. She has called for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve to drilling for oil and gas. And she now claims that climate change “is too important an issue to rush and get wrong,” – shorthand for lets do nothing.



On the house side we have Lamar Smith, republican Chairman of the Science, Space and Technology committee. He claims that most of the predictions of the IPCC have been wrong and the reports clearly are biased. He stated that “we’ve now had close to 18 years of no global warming even though carbon dioxide emissions have increased 25 percent over the last 18 years. Nobody can explain that.” The only problem here is that he is dead wrong. Last year, 2014, was the hottest year and 13 of the last 15 years were the hottest on record.



The house committee on Natural Resources is chaired by Rob Bishop, republican from Utah. He received a lifetime score of only 4% from the League of Conservation Voters, meaning he consistently votes against conservation measures. He opined, “Despite the fact that scientific data underlying the studies of global warming appear to have been manipulated to produce an intended outcome, EPA officials disregarded the contaminated science, calling it little more than a ‘blip on the history of this process.’” There is no evidence whatsoever to the claim that data has been manipulated or that science is contaminated.


Los Niños

Inscribed on a brass plaque at the base of The Statue of Liberty is “… Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” Is it time to rip the plaque off and melt it down for scrap?

Apparently some in this country feel this way – to the point that there are armed men and women prepared to turn away the children of Central America. Some fear that this tide of illegal immigration will bring with it a host of problems including epidemics; Tuberculosis, Dengue Fever, even Ebola. What’s the reality? Should we be so fearful?

The actual estimated rates of illegal immigration are down from a high in 2007. This is most likely due to the weakness of the economy to supply jobs, hence making the U.S. less attractive. Also President Obama has overseen a considerable increase in deportations, particularly for those who have committed violent crimes.

The real change that has come about recently is the increase in unaccompanied minors. For the most part they are simply showing up at the border and turning themselves in. The number is on the rise with most of the children are coming from Central America, principally El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Interviews with the children by the press both here in the US and in their country of origin indicate that they are not so much attracted here as fleeing there. Both abject poverty and in the case of Honduras, the world’s highest murder rate are driving the children to seek refuge in the U.S. and other countries such as Costa Rica and Mexico.

Photo credit New York Times

Photo credit New York Times

Further complicating the matter is a requirement, signed into law by President Bush in 2006, that the children be given due process. The law requires that they be brought before an immigration judge for consideration of refugee status. Because the immigration service is woefully underfunded and hence understaffed, there is a several year backlog for hearings.

The United Nations High Commission on Refuges recently found that the majority of immigrant children they interviewed were adjudged to be “forcibly displaced. This means that to refuse these children would be to breach United Nations Conventions.

Surely in a nation of over 300 million people, in a nation many claim to be a Christian nation, in a nation with close to 10 million millionaires, we can find it in our hearts and especially our pocketbooks to find a way to accommodate these refugee children, who number this year to less than a hundred thousand.

That’s 100 millionaires per child. We can live up to our boast on that brass plaque on the Statue of Liberty. “These are not somebody else’s kids. These are our kids,” Joe Biden


Arsenic Anyone?

A popular talk show doctor recently had several brands of Apple juice tested and claimed to have found Arsenic. Whereas nobody wants poison in her food, the question of the amount and its relevance is important. First a little background on Arsenic.

One of the first things that come to mind in association with Arsenic is poison. And indeed it is poisonous. It has been used as a pesticide because it is generally poisonous to all forms of life, rats, cockroaches, even some fungi succumb to it. Ironically it is also known to be an essential trace element for some organisms and possibly humans in tiny, tiny amounts.
Arsenic has been known since antiquity and is poisonous to varying degrees depending on its form. As important as the potency of a poison is the amount of the poison. A seventeenth century physician-chemist by the name of Paracelsus famously proclaimed “everything is poisonous, nothing is poisonous, the dose makes the poison”. One example is lima beans which naturally contain toxic cyanide ion, but lima beans aren’t toxic as the dose of cyanide is too small.
Arsenic has historically been a component of intrigue. In 15th century Italy the Borgia family waxed powerful. Lucrezia and Cesare were among the children of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (who became Pope Alexander VI- obviously things in the church were different in those days!) Lucrezia was said to be a very effective poisoner as she had learned how to concoct lethal Arsenic potions which were undetectable in food or drink. Arsenic-laden wallpaper
Napoleon may have been done in by Arsenic, but not by an intentional poisoning. His villa on the island of St Helena had wallpaper colored with Sheele’s Green, a pigment made from Arsenic. In moist air a mold can grow on the wallpaper and convert the Arsenic to a volatile form. It appears at least for Napoleon that not the butler but rather the wallpaper did it. Another Arsenic pigment called Emerald Green may have impaired the health of Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Monet among others.

Emerald Green Paint Pigment

Emerald Green Paint Pigment

Some women in the Victorian era would eat small amounts of Arsenic to produce a pale complexion. Tanned skin in those days indicated that one worked in the fields and was therefore of a lower class.
Now back to Apple juice. Any Arsenic in juice is an issue if for no other reason that juice is a mainstay of many children. Two questions come to mind. Where did the arsenic come from and is there enough Arsenic in the right form to be a risk to health?

 Generally speaking the Arsenic is coming from the soil in which the fruit is grown. It can be in the soil naturally or due to use of Arsenical pesticides applied to the soil. Lead Arsenate was used in the United States until the seventies. Arsenic is very stable and could persist in soils for many years. Another source may be China, where environmental regulations are lax at best. Over half of the Apple juice sold in the United States now comes from China.

The amount of Arsenic measured recently in some of the juice samples does exceed the World Health Organisation’s suggested limit for safety. However the method of measurement included both toxic inorganic and relatively nontoxic organic Arsenic. When only the toxic form is considered the level appears to be safe. The FDA has been monitoring arsenic in Apple juice for decades and sees no threat to public safety based on these findings.