Archive | Visibility

Lunar Eclipse to Shade the Sky Tonight

The year’s only lunar eclipse will occur late tonight or in the wee hours tomorrow, depending on where you live.

Providing the weather is clear, people in North and Central America and a small region of South America will have the best view of the phenomenon. Western Europe will catch only the beginning glimpses of the eclipse while western Asia will see only the end.

“It’s perfectly placed so that all of North America can see it,” eclipse expert Fred Espenak of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center told The Associated Press.

The event is expected to last about 3 1/2 hours, and will begin at 11:41 p.m. PST or 2:41 a.m. EST.

When the moon passes through the Earth’s shadow, the earth blocks the sun from illuminating the moon. This is only possible when the moon is full. The totality phase – when the Earth, moon and sun are perfectly aligned, blocking all of the sun’s rays from the moon – will last about 72 minutes.

Indirect sunlight will pass through the Earth’s atmosphere, coloring the moon an eerie orange or red. Scientists say ash and dust from recent volcanic eruptions may darken the eclipsed moon to a deeper red or brown.

North America is lucky enough to have the best seats in the house for 2010′s only total lunar eclipse, but won’t be so fortunate in 2011. The region will miss the June 2011 eclipse entirely, and catch only part of the eclipse expected to occur next December.

Posted in Air, Atmosphere, & Weather, Climate Science & Weather, Visibility0 Comments

Volcano in Philippines Nearing Eruption

LEGAZPI CITY, Philippines, Dec. 18 (UPI) — The Mayon Volcano in the Albay Province of the Philippines is nearing possible eruption after days of volcanic activity, state volcanologists said Friday.

The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology said since Monday alone, Mount Mayon has endured 248 volcanic quakes and tremors, including 50 explosion-type events, the Philippines Bulletin reported.

“However, only seven (events) were observed during times of good visibility. These explosions produced dark gray to dark brown ash columns that reached a maximum height of up to 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) above the summit before drifting southwest,” institute director Renato Solidum said.

Lava has already begun exiting the volcano during the recent activity and lava fragments have traveled nearly 2 ½ miles down Mayon’s slopes.

The Bulletin said as a precaution, the institute issued a relatively high unrest alert status for the volcano and recommended no human activities take place within the danger zone surrounding the volcano.

Copyright 2009 by United Press International

Posted in Visibility, Volcanoes0 Comments

Northern Lights Burst Captured on Film

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 18 (UPI) — Cameras for the first time have filmed waves of aurora borealis colliding to produce spectacular bursts of light, scientists in California said.

“Our jaws dropped when we saw the movies for the first time. These outbursts are telling us something very fundamental about the nature of auroras,” space scientist Larry Lyons of the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a release Thursday.

The images have been captured since December 2007 by a network of NASA cameras spread across thousands of miles around the Arctic.

Each burst of light was preceded by a broad wave, or curtain, of slow-moving auroras and a smaller knot of fast-moving auroras, initially far apart. The slow curtain hung almost immobile while the fast-moving knot rushed in from the north to collide with the slow curtain and produce a blast of light.

The collisions occurred on such a vast scale that isolated observers, with limited fields of view, had never noticed them before, said Lyons, who led the expedition team.

Movies of the phenomenon were shown Thursday at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

Copyright 2009 by United Press International

Posted in Air, Atmosphere, & Weather, Atmospheric Science, Visibility0 Comments

East Coast Braces for Blizzard that's Dumped Feet of Snow and Cost Lives

CHICAGO, Dec. 9 (UPI) — The first major winter storm of the season to batter large portions of the United States charged toward the East Coast early Wednesday.

The massive storm, which was blamed for at least four deaths, left 4-5 feet of snow in the Sierra and Rockies, then whipped across the Central Plains and Midwest where up to 14 inches of snow was buffeted by 40 mph winds, meteorologists at said.

No place registered more snow than South Fork, Colo., where 59 inches fell. Below the mountains, Clay Center, Neb. reported 14 inches, Rockport, Mo. had 12.5 and about a foot was reported in Mankato and Phillipsburg, Kans., and Des Moines, Iowa. Six to 10 inches were reported across parts of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin. Even Eckhart Mines, Md., had 5.4 inches. Accumulations were expected to reach 12-18 inches from northeastern Iowa to northern Lower Michigan by Wednesday evening

The blizzard made for dangerous travel and people across the country’s mid-section were advised against venturing out. Numerous accidents were reporting from Kansas to Iowa, including along Interstates 35 and 80, AccuWeather said.

Visibility was a half mile or less in Madison, Wis., and Omaha.

The storm was forecast to press to the northeast through the night and air travel was expected to be seriously impacted across the Midwest and Northeast Wednesday.

Snow, ice and rain was already hitting the mid-Atlantic and was forecast to spread into the Northeast through Wednesday. Washington, Philadelphia and New York City were expected to get mostly rain, but sleet and snow were reported close by and motorists were expected to encounter treacherous road conditions. Slow going was predicted for Interstates 80, 81, 87, 88, 90, 91 and 95 in the Northeast.

Snow was to begin in Boston before daybreak Wednesday, leaving 1-3 inches in the city before changing to rain by midday. Three to 6 inches was expected in Boston’s northern and western suburbs.

Enough snow to shovel and plow was forecast from the northern tier of Pennsylvania to northern New England.

AccuWeather forecast a “tremendous lake-effect snow event” on the heels of this storm for the second half of the week that it said “will bury some snow belt communities under feet of snow.”

Copyright 2009 by United Press International

Posted in Nature & Ecosystems, People, Visibility0 Comments

Winter Slams Manitoba; Flights Delayed, Roads Closed and Icy Wind Chills

WINNIPEG, Manitoba, Oct. 11 (UPI) — Winter has arrived in Winnipeg, Manitoba, resulting in flight delays, icy roads and an unseasonable wind chill, police said.

The first snowstorm of the season came as a surprise to motorists Friday night, The Winnipeg Free Press reported Sunday. Police were warning motorists Saturday of difficult driving conditions.

“Due to the weather, roadways in and around the city of Winnipeg have become very slippery, specifically overpasses and bridges,” Jason Michalyshen, Winnipeg police constable, said. “We are encouraging motorists to drive according to the present conditions.”

A jet taxied off a runway at Winnipeg’s James Armstrong Richardson International Airport Friday night and became stuck in soft ground, so flights were delayed for much of the day Saturday. The crew of United Flight 6648 from Denver missed seeing the blue taxi-direction light because of blowing snow, Winnipeg Airports Authority spokeswoman Christine Alongi said.

“They were taxiing to come to the terminal but because of poor visibility they drove onto the soft surface,” she said. “It took until 3:45 p.m. to remove it. They had to use air bags to prop it up to get it out. All three landing gear (were) stuck.”

Copyright 2009 by United Press International

Posted in Nature & Ecosystems, Visibility, Wind0 Comments

Early Fall Snowstorm Dumps 2+ Feet of Snow on Idaho & Montana

FEATHERVILLE, Idaho, Oct. 5 (UPI) — A snowstorm stretching from Idaho to the Dakotas dumped up to 2 feet of snow created dangerous driving conditions and power outages, officials said Monday.

Snow was expected to blanket the area between the northern Rockies into the High Plains through Monday, and could leave up to another foot of snow in southwest and south-central Montana, eastern Idaho, and northwest Wyoming, reported.

Areas west of Featherville, Idaho, already were covered by 2 feet of snow, while many other high peaks in Idaho and Montana received up to a foot or more of the white stuff. Some final snow totals could reach 3 feet, forecasters said.

The heavy, wet, early-season snow created electrical and phone outages in the northern Rockies, weighing down trees onto utility lines, officials said. Fallen trees also littered roads in a few places.

Wind gusts between 40 mph and 50 mph whistled over areas northwest of the storm reducing visibility by blowing snow around, officials warned.

As the storm headed northeast across the Upper Midwest Tuesday, snow was expected to taper off over most areas, said. Toward the middle and end of the week, a cold front from Canada could bring snow to parts of the northern Rockies.

Snow showers were expected to end Monday in parts of southeast Oregon and northeastern Nevada.

Copyright 2009 by United Press International

Posted in Nature & Ecosystems, Other, Visibility, Wind0 Comments

Cellulosic Ethanol

Ethanol Pace Car
The pace car for the 2008 Indianapolis 500 ran
on E85; the race cars burned 100% ethanol fuel.

Last month, for the first time in history, the cars racing in the Indianapolis 500 were fueled by pure ethanol. This should put to rest any concerns about ethanol lacking sufficient energy density to function as a motor fuel.

While the absolute amount of energy contained in ethanol is somewhat lower than gasoline – about 76,000 BTUs per gallon for ethanol compared to about 116,000 BTUs per gallon of gasoline – ethanol has higher octane, generally speaking 110 or more vs. 90 or less, allowing ethanol to run in higher compression, higher efficiency engines. A car optimized to run on ethanol can get comparable mileage to a car optimized to run on gasoline.

There are other concerns about ethanol, for example, the notion that it takes more energy to manufacture ethanol than the energy value of the fuel itself, the suggestion that it isn’t “carbon neutral” after all, and the whopper, the accusation that ethanol production has taken food crops out of production. All of these concerns have some validity, but are shrouded in complexities that defy simple characterizations or easy conclusions. Yet that is what has happened. A few years ago, biofuel in general, and ethanol in particular, could do no wrong. Today the situation is reversed, and around the world, for the most part the powerful media and environmentalist communities have turned on biofuel.

In many respects this awakening is healthy – when mandatory carbon offset trading in the European Community was subsidizing rainforest destruction in southeast asia to make way for oil palm plantations, something was clearly out of whack. But corn ethanol in the USA has drawn the most visible criticisms. California’s Air Resources Board, struggling to implement a lower carbon fuel standard, has recently determined, perhaps correctly, that hauling tank cars by rail over the Rocky Mountains from Iowa to the west coast probably eliminates any carbon neutrality ethanol may have otherwise enjoyed. In Washington D.C., the political backlash continues to build against the subsidies corn ethanol receives, with increasing urgency due to the global food shortages that are allegedly exacerbated by dedicating so much acreage to corn for ethanol.

Corn Field for Ethanol
In the USA, 10 billion gallons of corn ethanol
will be produced annually within a few years.

There are many responses to these concerns, however. When producing ethanol from Brazilian sugar cane, for example, the energy payback can go as high as 8 to 1. In the case of corn ethanol, most analysts put the payback around 1.5 to 1, and at a margin that thin, there is plenty of room for interpretation. But the analyses that claim corn ethanol’s energy payback is insufficient to justify its use as a fuel ignore the caloric value of the distiller’s grain, a byproduct of corn ethanol production.

Critics of corn ethanol subsidies ignore the value of keeping these dollars in the U.S. to reduce the trade deficit. Those environmentalists concerned about the growing “dead zone” caused by agricultural runoff, presumably destined to grow even faster as we turn more acreage to biofuel, are certainly justified. But it is disingenuous to suggest that because we are distilling corn instead of harvesting grain there is somehow a more urgent problem than before. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico needs to be cleaned up. Agricultural runoff is an environmental challenge that awaits cost effective solutions – with or without the reality of biofuel.

The most problematic challenge to corn ethanol undoubtedly comes from those who are concerned it is causing rising food prices. But here again there are many significant factors that in aggregate eclipse the impact of corn ethanol, possibly by orders of magnitude. Rising per capita income in Asia and elsewhere has caused increased consumption of meat products, and livestock requires grain. Estimates vary, but for every calorie of meat consumed, about eight calories of grain have to be grown and fed to the livestock. This phenomenon has caused global demand for grain to grow far faster than it would already be growing due to increasing human population. At the same time, there have been temporary but severe setbacks to global grain output – a drought in Australia, flooding in the American mid-west. If that weren’t enough, commodities speculators have hedged themselves against devaluing dollars and falling asset values in stocks and real estate by purchasing commodities futures – driving prices up more than the forces of normal supply and demand already have.

Ethanol proponents have answered the critics in a variety of ways. The “25×25 Alliance,” an industry group committed to the goal of the USA producing 25% of its energy from renewable sources by 2025, has issued “sustainability principles” for biofuel production. The National Corn Growers Association has compiled a great deal of data in an attempt to debunk the position that corn ethanol is the primary cause of worldwide food shortages and commodity price increases. Automakers are caught in the middle – a powerful environmental lobby demands cars capable of being fueled with alternatives to gasoline, then savagely turns on corn ethanol, despite the fact it is the only motor fuel alternative we’ve got that we can produce in meaningful quantities today.

In any event, corn ethanol isn’t the ultimate solution to biofuel supplies, it is only a transitional fuel. This crucial point is often lost amid the controversy surrounding corn ethanol. It is cellulosic ethanol that has the potential to completely replace petroleum based fuel, and when cellulosic ethanol begins to arrive in high volume, a preexisting ethanol infrastructure – cars that run on ethanol, fueling stations that sell ethanol, and a transportation network to deliver ethanol to retailers – will need to be in place. Corn ethanol is priming the pump for the arrival of cellulosic ethanol.

Within the next few years corn ethanol production in the United States is predicted to top 10 billion gallons. This is not a trivial amount of fuel, given the entire light vehicle fleet in the USA consumes only 15 times that amount. Corn ethanol has already reduced the demand for foreign oil for light vehicle use by about 6.5%. Nonetheless, critics who claim corn ethanol production cannot possibly increase enough to replace petroleum are correct. The math of these critics is elegant – 10 billion gallons of corn ethanol, at 2.8 gallons per bushel and 155 bushels per acre equates to 23 million acres, about 7% of America’s active farm acreage. If you use corn ethanol to service 100% of America’s fuel requirements for light vehicles, you use 100% of America’s farmland.

Once again, however, this math is missing the point. Corn ethanol, distilled from corn mash, is not the end of biofuel, it is just the beginning of biofuel. Even the impressive global production of ethanol from sugar cane is easily eclipsed by the potential of cellulosic extraction. So what is cellulosic ethanol, where does it come from, how can it be produced, and how long will it be before meaningful quantities of this fuel arrive at the corner filling station?

One of the most visible and visionary proponents of biofuel is the noted venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who early in his career was one of the four co-founders of Sun Microsystems, and has parlayed this spectacular victory into an impressive portfolio of investments in private sector companies. Over the past few years Khosla Ventures has invested in dozens of clean technology and sustainable energy companies, including several top tier biofuel ventures, including Coskata and Mascoma, mentioned later in this report. In a recent research paper written by Vinod Khosla entitled “Where will Biofuels and Biomass Feedstocks Come From ,” Khosla identifies and quantifies the many potential sources of cellulosic feedstock for ethanol fuel. Some of the information on the table below borrows from Khosla’s research, but changes some of the assumptions; other data comes from the U.S. Dept. of Energy.

Ethanol Feedstock Chart
At least 1.0 billion tons of ethanol feedstock can be
sustainably harvested each year in the United States.

The figures on this table are arguably realistic, not optimistic, based on the following assumptions for each feedstock:

Dedicated land use refers to cellulosic crops, such as miscanthus or switchgrass, planted on 5% of American farmland (total US farmland is estimated currently at 317 million acres), less than is currently planted for corn ethanol production. At a yield of 15 tons of cellulosic feedstock per acre and 100 gallons of ethanol per ton of feedstock, nearly 24 billion gallons of ethanol can be produced each year. While 15 tons of feedstock per acre is more than can currently be grown, it is considerably lower than forecasts of yields expected within the next couple of decades, which range as high as 25 tons per acre.

Winter cover crops would not displace existing farmland, and if they were profitable to grow it isn’t unlikely they could become additional income for farmers on 25% of land already under summer cultivation. At a yield of 3 tons per acre – projections go as high as 5 tons per acre – another nearly 24 billion gallons of ethanol can be produced each year.

Redwood Trees
California’s Redwoods. Forest thinning could help
prevent catastrophic fires, reduce infestations,
and provide hundreds of millions of tons of cellulose.

Excess forest biomass is a difficult number to calculate, but when one considers there are about 750 million acres of forest in the USA (ref. Forest Resources of the United States), as well as the fact nearly all of them have become dangerously overgrown (major factors in more catastrophic fires and beetle infestations, ref. Restoration Forestry), the figure we’ve used of 226 million tons per year is probably quite low. It would suggest a growth in forest mass of less than one-third of a ton per acre per year. And in our estimate, even the figure of 226 million tons is only assumed to be 70% utilized. Forest thinning is a form of stewardship long overdue, it will return America’s forests to their healthier historical densities, and their excess mass will power our engines instead of burn in forest fires.

Construction debris and municipal solid waste are obvious candidates for cellulosic harvesting, and even the non-cellulosic materials can be used as fuel for the extraction of syngas (which is converted into ethanol), or reclaimed as building materials. According to the Dept. of Energy, 325 million tons of these waste resources are produced each year. We have assumed 90% utilization, and only 75 gallons of ethanol per ton, a yield that is below most projections.

Other waste resources are deliberately understated – just our industrial emissions are probably sufficient to deliver 100 million tons of feedstock. Also not included in this analysis anywhere else are crop residue, a huge source of feedstocks, some percentage of which can certainly be allocated sustainably to ethanol production without sacrificing soil health.

It isn’t easy to estimate just how much cellulosic feedstock could be sustainably harvested each year in the USA, but but two things are clear from this analysis. (1) When cellulosic ethanol extraction becomes a commercially competitive process, and the industrial capacity is in place to produce high volumes of ethanol from cellulosic materials, there will be plenty of feedstocks – at least 1.0 billion tons per year; possibly twice that. Cellulosic ethanol definitely has the potential to become a significant source of transportation fuel, and (2) Khosla’s contention that land use dedicated to ethanol production in the USA might actually decrease when cellulosic processing takes over is completely plausible. In the example above, no corn ethanol was produced, and the dedicated acreage committed to cellulosic ethanol was assumed to be 5% of America’s farmland, whereas today corn ethanol is grown on about 7% of America’s farmland.

So how will we convert cellulosic material into ethanol? There are hundreds of companies around the world working on ways to accomplish this, using a variety of technological approaches. Last month, while on a General Motors sponsored tour for automotive journalists, I had the opportunity to visit two companies who are pursuing promising, and very different, solutions to the cellulosic ethanol puzzle.

Our trip began in Chicago on the morning of May 21st, where about a dozen journalists assembled to drive a convoy of GM vehicles, all equipped to run on E85 ethanol. In a completely unexpected turn of events, I found myself behind the wheel in a high riding Chevy Silverado, painted with GM colors that announced to the world the truck’s status as an ethanol fueled vehicle, with extended cab and a monstrous bed. Although I was unaccustomed to piloting such a behemoth, there was excellent road visibility from the cab, and GM’s OnStar tracked my position and provided constant audio directions, so I swung into downtown Chicago traffic, and joined the late morning rush out of town. At one point it was clear we needed to move across a couple of lanes to catch our exit, and to make sure we would safely execute this maneuver amidst the 18 wheelers and such, I found it appropriate to smash the gas pedal to the floor and hold it there. The tactic was brilliantly successful, as this gigantic truck leapt forward with impressive accelleration and increased our speed from 45 to 75 in a matter of seconds. Safely in our place on the correct route, I let off the accelerator and knew the power of corn.

Bill Roe, Richard Wagoner, and Vinod Khosla
Coskata CEO Bill Roe and General Motors
Chairman Richard Wagoner seal the deal, as
early Coskata investor Vinod Khosla looks on.

About 40 miles west of Chicago, in Warrenville, Illinois, are the labs of Coskata, a company that is contending to be the first to commercialize production of cellulosic ethanol.

In February 2008 General Motors invested an undisclosed sum in this three year old private company, whose CEO, Bill Roe, stated “we do not believe we have any remaining technological hurdles.” Coskata is betting on this with a pilot plant they are building in Madison, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. They expect to have this plant operating early in 2009, producing 40,000 gallons of fuel per year. GM intends to use the fuel to test their growing fleet of E85 flexfuel vehicles.

Coskata’s technology for extracting ethanol from cellulose is elaborate, but apparently closer to commercialization than competing processes. Whether or not Coskata’s technology ultimately dominates is harder to assess, but according to Roe, the variable costs to produce a gallon of ethanol using their technology is expected to be under $1.00 per gallon. Here’s how Coskata intends to produce ethanol:

In the diagram below, “Coskata’s Manufacturing Process,” there are three primary steps. First the feedstock is shredded and dried, and fed into the gasifier, where it is reduced to syngas at a temperature of 5,000 degrees. Some of the syngas is used to provide the energy for the conversion process, but about 85% of the syngas is converted into ethanol in step two. A recent study by Argonne National Labs estimates Coskata’s process yields an energy payback of about 8 to 1.

The second step is to feed the syngas into a bioreactor, where microbes eat the syngas and excrete ethanol. These microbes are anerobic, meaning they can’t survive in atmosphere, and they are the result of careful selective breeding whereby they are now 100 times more efficient converting syngas into ethanol than they were when they began the process a few years ago. “We know our microbes can convert syngas to ethanol at commercial quantities, cost effectively,” said Roe.

The final step in the process is to feed the ethanol and water out of the bioreactor into a recovery tank, where the ethanol is extracted and the water is recycled back into the bioreactor.

From the look of things during our visit to Coskata’s lab in Warrenville, about the only bugs left in their process are the bugs in the bioreactor. According to Wes Bolson, Coskata’s Chief Marketing Officer, the company is actively seeking partners among the companies who have access to huge quantities of cellulosic feedstock, and currently have nothing they can do with it. These candidates include timber companies, sugar cane refiners, pulp and paper mills, and waste management companies. Coskata can also partner with companies who already are generating syngas, but haven’t got the bioreactor technology.

Diagram of Coskata's Manufacturing Process
Coskata executives believe their technology is ready today.

After spending a half-day at Coskata, our corn fueled convoy got back on the highway and headed south to Indianapolis, driving most of the way on southbound Interstate 65. And as our expedition hurtled through America’s heartland on this beautiful afternoon, as far as the eye could see, across the rain watered endless fertile fields of Indiana sprouted new shoots of spring corn.

If you are within blocks, long blocks, of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, during the last full week in May, you will likely hear the roar of the engines. And as we neared the track on the morning of May 22nd, we too heard and felt the sound as the drivers did qualifying laps in advance of the 92nd running of the Indianapolis 500. In a thankfully soundproof auditorium on the massive infield of the racetrack, we attended an ethanol summit co-sponsored by GM, where I had an opportunity to meet Dr. Mike Ladisch, Chief Technical Officer of Mascoma. This company, like Coskata, is hot on the trail of commercializing cellulosic ethanol production, but they are pursuing a solution that will not rely on high temperature gasification. Instead, Mascoma is developing a biochemical method to convert cellulose into ethanol. Ladisch, a genial scientist who has taken a leave of absence from Purdue to serve as CTO at Mascoma, was understandably guarded about his company’s technology, but characterized it in the following way:

“The work at Mascoma is based on organisms and processes designed to rapidly break down the components of biomass, convert a range of sugars and polymers of sugars to ethanol, and thrive in a manufacturing environment.”

Mascoma intends to do this in one step using genetically engineered microbes that are capable of performing both processes. This is known as consolidated bioprocessing, or CBP, and perhaps represents the ultimate technology to extract ethanol from cellulose.

Another informed opinion on Mascoma (and cellulosic technology in general) was obtained via email from Dr. Lee Lynd, a professor at Dartmouth who, along with Ladisch, is one of the leading scientists in the world pursuing advanced cellulosic technologies. Here is what he wrote:

“Mascoma has the largest and most focused effort worldwide on consolidated bioprocessing, which I consider to be the ultimate low-cost conversion strategy. If Mascoma is able to continue this aggressive effort, I believe that they will succeed and that they will have the lowest cost technology for converting herbaceous and woody angiosperms (e.g. grass and hardwoods) to ethanol and other biofuels. It is less clear that the Mascoma approach will be best for gymnosperms (softwoods), and this could be a long-term niche for thermochemical processing along with processing residues from biological processing. Mascoma’s business strategy features a ‘staircase’ of process configurations, starting with options that can be commercially implemented very soon and progressing ultimately to CBP.”

How soon will Mascoma and others deploy these technologies? Although Mascoma’s website has an excellent description of the various cellulosic technologies (ref. Consolidated Bioprocessing), exactly when they expect their technology to be ready for commercialization appears to be a closely guarded secret. Other observers, off the record, have stated commercially viable enzymatic processing is 5-10 years away. But advances in biotechnology are happening at a staggering pace, and unforeseen breakthroughs are not something to bet against. On the other hand, even if Coskata, Mascoma, and countless other credible contenders to deliver commercially competitive cellulosic ethanol technologies were all ready tomorrow, it will still take years to build the new refineries and transform America’s light vehicle fleet.

In the meantime, corn carries the weight of being the primary source of ethanol in the USA, as the rest of the infrastructure falls into place. There are already 1,600 ethanol stations in the U.S. – about 1% of all gasoline retailers – and with UL certification imminent the big box chains are going to begin offering ethanol fuel, greatly increasing access. General Motors now offers 15 models of flexfuel vehicles; and they are now producing over 1.0 million of them per year. Other automakers are following suit. All over the world, governments are determining what percentages of ethanol fuel – along with other biofuels, biodiesel in particular – to blend into their transportation fuels.

How long can corn carry the weight of this growth, serving as the transitional feedstock? How soon can hybrids and extended range electric vehicles level off or even reduce the demand for transportation fuel? There is little doubt ethanol is a viable fuel for light vehicles, and there is little doubt cellulosic ethanol feedstocks exist in sufficient sustainable abundance to greatly offset petroleum consumption. Finally, there is little doubt that money and support for cellulosic ethanol commercialization is ongoing; from Washington DC to Detroit to the Silicon Valley, everyone is on board. The uncertainty lies in whether or not the new technologies to extract ethanol from cellulose will emerge in months or decades, and in how fast we can build large scale industrial capacity to exploit these new technologies. Look to pilot plants in Madison, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, for early indications of what may come, and when.

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Posted in Cars, Consumption, Drought, Energy & Fuels, Infrastructure, Journalists, Other, Science, Space, & Technology, Transportation, Visibility, Waste Management1 Comment

Honda's "Puyo" Concept Car

It’s generally accepted that to develop new cars with a green ethos designers will have to start thinking outside the traditional box, but this year at the 2007 Tokyo Motor Show, Honda decided to redefine the box while they were at it. The company unveiled its concept vehicle christened “Puyo,” a name meant to onomatopoetically convey the Japanese phrase for “touching the vehicle’s soft body.” They hope drivers will regard the Puyo as more a lovable pet than a piece of machinery.

Honda’s “Puyo” Concept Car
With four independently steered wheels,
the Puyo can do a 306 degree turn in-place.

Body-wise the Puyo looks a bit like a marshmallow on wheels. Outfitted with panoramic windows and a glass roof, the vehicle’s body is crafted of a soft, gel-like material derived from silicone.

The construction is seamless and contoured so that there are no corners. At the same time, however, the material allows for the Puyo to be the mood ring of automotive design.

Lighting under the luminescent body allows the Puyo to glow in different colors to convey how it’s feeling. Green means the car is happy.

The soft body was conceived to cause less harm to pedestrians in the event of a collision. Inside padded materials protect occupants in the spacious cabin in much the same way. The seats are reminiscent of barstools with backs while the second row is a comfortable bench that’s really almost a couch. Single side doors open out and up in a scissor-like fashion to give access to both rows.

The Puyo, described as a “city car” concept, can turn 360 degrees in place making the idea of “reverse” obsolete. The driver steers intuitively with a joystick while seated in front of a fluid meter display in a gray cloth dash that includes a warm blue speedometer. The dash rises up toward the driver when the car’s engine starts and retracts when the ignition is cut.

Sadly, there are few released details on the engine itself except that it’s a fuel cell unit for quiet and environmentally sound, clean propulsion. Honda says it’s small and given the design of the Puyo, it would have to be. There just isn’t anything there that constitutes a “hood” in the conventional sense.

There’s a great deal to like in the Puyo concept, even if it never hits the streets. The high visibility and zero turning radius make the Puyo ideal for maneuvering in crowded city conditions. It’s comfortable without superfluous amenities and the fuel cell engine is right on track for the green street cred that has become the lynch pin of 21st century automotive design. Unconventional thinking is the breeding ground of important technological breakthroughs and, if nothing else, the Puyo is unconventional.

Posted in Transportation, Visibility1 Comment

Repeal Term Limits

With spectacular Pacific coastline, Sierra alpine peaks, the best music, movies, food and wine in the world, with ongoing world high-tech leadership and trend-setting culture, California is the Athens of the 21st century. But California has allowed a gaping hole to be rent into the fabric of its democracy, through the enactment of term limits for California’s state legislators. This unhealthy condition here in California not only causes grievous harm to our great state, it spreads ripples around the planet.

Every member of every powerful special interest influencing California’s government has an unlimited term. Every corporate chief, every union boss, and every agency bureaucrat has a job that can last for decades, but the elected leaders who are supposed to balance these special interests are automatically and routinely terminated, often well before their time, by term limit laws. The good politicians are eliminated with the bad. No visionary leader can arise to represent their constituents, when the only way to make a lifetime committment to a career in politics is to jump from one district to another.

California’s veteran legislators are now vagabonds, who hop from district to district each time they are termed out. They can never know their constituents the way a long-term legislator could, and they are more beholden instead to their party for funding and support. Because they must rotate districts, they are less likely to have grassroots support of their own. Term limits kill off powerful and independent legislators before they can realize their potential, and the effect of this is to shift power away from the voters and into the hands of party bosses and public bureaucrats.

If you are a legislator in California, you may be completely committed to the district where you have your own home and family. But unless you abandon your home and take over another electoral seat, you will only serve six years if you are a California State Assemblyperson (3x 2 year terms), or eight years if you are a California State Senator (2x 4 year terms).

Not only do term limits undermine the connection between legislators and their constituents, it guarantees a higher percentage of office holders are either ineffective novices or party hacks. It takes about 6-8 years just to know what’s going on in Sacramento’s state legislative chambers. What bill was brokered off the floor last year, and why, and why is it back now? What to do with the myriad of special interest lobbyists, and let’s not forget that registered lobbyists have no term limits. By the time you have acquired competence and established a reputation in California’s legislature, and can exercise the leadership that our democracy counts on to survive, you are termed out. This subverts democracy because excellent and powerful elected representatives are automatically killed off. Term limits are good for government bureaucrats and special interests, and bad for the rest of us.

The reason term limits were enacted was because incumbents were wielding too much power. Particularly when there are gerrymandered districts where all seats are safe. In California the districts are so gerrymandered that in California’s last general election, 2004, not one seat in California’s Assembly or Senate changed party hands. But term limits don’t alleviate, they compound the problems caused by gerrymandering. Both must end.

Towards the end of the California legislature’s 2006 session, a bill came very close to passing that would have done this – it would have eliminated term limits at the same time as it ceded redistricting authority to a nonpartisan commission – something that probably would spell an end to gerrymandered electoral districts. That this bill almost passed into law is encouraging to anyone who would like to see California’s democracy revitalized.

Given California’s visibility in the world, it would be an especially good thing if their voters and legislators and judges would act to put an end to gerrymandering and repeal term limits. The only term limits that should exist in a democracy are the ones enforced at the ballot box.

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Technology & Free Enterprise Come Together To Save the Environment

Jonathan Brewer
Jonathon Brewer
Earthworks Environmental Founder

Editor’s note: As often as not, technology and free-enterprise are forces that can save the environment. A perfect example is Jonathan Brewer’s company EarthWorks Environmental, with a technology that transforms polluted soil into soil clean enough to grow crops. But delivering a technological solution is only the beginning of the fight. Environmental entrepreneurs can provide the courage and the innovation, but their efforts must be complemented by diligent reporting in the press, and serious attention from investors, if their solution is to get the visibility and financial backing necessary to scale up to something that will truly make the world a better place. This is especially true if, as is the case with EarthWorks, the solution will disrupt an established industry.

ROSEVILLE, CALIFORNIA Jonathan Brewer likens his soil remediation technology to the Wright Brothers’ airplane back in the early 1900′s. Why? Because the machines he’s designed are the first of their kind and can go where no man has gone before. They are a creative piece of engineering, and because of these machines, Mr. Brewer’s company, EarthWorks Environmental (, looks like it has a strong future ahead of it. But still, like many examples in history of an established industry reluctant to take notice of the “seemingly simple”, Jonathan Brewer’s concepts encounter some reluctance from the soil treatment industry in general. While EarthWorks’ “METS” process, or Matrix Enhanced Treatment System, is ingenious and may possibly be the answer to much of the earth’s contaminated soil troubles, its adoption would cause major disruption to the existing multi-billion dollar soil remediation industry.

METS Rotor
METS Rotor

EarthWorks’ “METS” consists of SUV-sized soil crushing machines that are based on mining practice and technology. They are specially designed and engineered to be toxin-neutralizing powerhouses. A rotor inside each machine grinds soil into particles that are small enough to be effectively decontaminated. Various chemicals, bioreagents, bacteria, and enzymes are sprayed on the crushed contaminated soil particles as they travel through the machine, leaving the soil in a neutralized, natural, decontaminated state that, as Mr. Brewer says, “can be used in your garden.” The cleaning materials that are used to clean the soil are always bench tested first, and there is no threat of leakage from the machines. According to Mr. Brewer, “the only soil contaminants we can’t treat are radioactive uranium and plutonium isotopes.”

The company is based in California and has had several major contracts awarded for its onsite cleanup techniques, including, as the Sacramento Bee reports, “a $100 million federal contract given to a Foster Wheeler subsidiary to clean up US Navy and Marine installations, and a $400,000 National Institute of Health grant prospect.” EarthWorks’ machines are remotely controlled and compact enough to fit in standard 20-ft overseas shipping containers, which will help in EarthWorks’ hopes to export machines internationally in the near future.

2001 Most Innovative Product Award
Earthworks has garnered
honors for its products
(UC Davis Connect Award)

According to Brewer, the major factor holding these machines back from full integration into the marketplace is “comfort”. The environmental industry is “comfortable” with the current practice of landfilling hazardous and contaminated soil. Brewer says, “the current practice of landfilling doesn’t remedy the problem, it only moves it to be dealt with by future generations. With the METS technology, we now have the availability to permanently treat the soil, at lower cost than landfilling. It’s going to take some time for the industry to embrace this major change.”

How will this technology shake up the soil remediation industry? What often times happens where contaminated soil or hazardous waste is concerned is that it is shipped off to a landfill where it sits forever. These landfills have protections against contaminant leakage, providing the hazardous soil is within specified contamination limits. Earthworks’ ability to treat almost any contaminated soil on-site creates a great benefit for humanity and the earth. However, not every cleanup situation has proven optimal for Earthworks. A recent situation in a city in Sonoma county, California, shows that this type of echnology, no matter how wonderful, must battle with time and government regulations.

METS Processor
METS Processor
at a job site

In this case, in early 2002, EarthWorks won the bid to clean a contaminated sludge area in a competitive process. When interviewed, an official from the city’s Utilities Department, who requested EcoWorld to withhold his name and the name of his city from this report, described the case as consisting of “more than 10,000 tons of sludge and pond bottoms from oxidation ponds from old treatment plants.” The material required off site disposal with or without treatment. “The lead levels in this sludge,” he explained, “were above 5 parts per million, which is the STLC limit for municipal landfill disposal. When this was discovered, another company was hired in a competitive bidding process, which included both options for on site treatment and disposal, and also simply hauling and disposal as hazardous waste. The company was hired to mix the material with cement to bind the leachable lead into a non-soluble form, thus reducing STLC to non-hazardous levels and reducing total lead concentration by dilution, so the material could be shipped to a landfill as soon as possible.”

While the City Utilities Department official claims he is not opposed to onsite technology such as EarthWork’s manufactures, he was sure that the use of this technology was not best for this situation, especially because of time. He stated “onsite soil remediation technology is good for most materials and situations for which the cleanup process has no time constraints. We had to get this hazardous waste out of this area that was close to society, close to a creek and a river, in a location where the weather was unpredictable and unexpected rains could cause further leakage into the surrounding soil.” He explained that it was urgent to get the soil removed from the area, and shipping it to a Hazardous Waste landfill seemed the best option at the time, because it would have been quicker, and thus safer for the residents of the city. Also, using onsite technology would have created the need for time-consuming government decisions on regulation and oversight over how the soil cleanup would have been managed during the process, and how it would be monitored once the site was cleaned, which would have slowed the process further.

Besides confronting situations such as these time-sensitive ones, EarthWorks also faces in the soil remediation industry an entire network of jobs that have been secure for years for those people who transport soil to landfills and maintain the landfills. If EarthWorks’ onsite technology was used for all remediation sites and soil was cleaned up on-location, the need to transport to landfills would be greatly reduced. What would these people do? A lot of people would be without jobs, which is one of the reasons the soil remediation industry may not welcome the “new kid on the block” with open arms. When asked if he has any ideas to help overcome this problem, Mr. Brewer stated “transportation may still be needed by some sites that can’t afford the time or space for onsite cleanup. The soil could be transported somewhere else for treatment by METS machines, but treatment is always better than dumping!”

Overall it seems that EarthWorks may have a real goldmine on its hands, but certainly not before many industry obstacles have been overcome. These include the thousands of current jobs in trucking and hazardous waste landfills being lost or shifted, the urgent or time-constrained cleanup sites, government regulations and monitoring considerations, and just the overall acceptance of change. All of these are significant obstacles, but a process that cleans contaminated soil instead of sequestering it forever, while costing much less, ought to eventually prevail. It should be interesting to watch the EarthWorks’ METS process “take off” like the Wright Bros.’ plane so many years ago.

Earthworks’ Documented Field Results

The following projects were performed by EarthWorks Environmental, Inc. in the process of developing
the METS process for widespread commercial use. These projects were required to meet rigorous remediation standards established by regulatory authorities. The soil was treated as found, with no special preparation or enhancement.

In all cases, the treatment method involved a chemical/catalytic reaction to degrade the contaminant(s). In two cases, the soil was contaminated with more than one contaminant. Nevertheless, the soil was processed only one time in both cases.

Field Project #1: Field Project #2: Field Project #3:
Location: North
Central California
Coast California
Volume of soil: 250
Contamination type(s): Diesel
and MTBE
and diesel fuel
Elapsed time for project: 18
Nineteen days
Results from confirmation
Non-detect for diesel and BTEX
for all samples (sensitivity: parts- per-million
Non-detect for gasoline in all
samples (sensitivity at parts-per-million). Non-detect for MTBE in all
samples (sensitivity at parts-per-billion).
Non-detect for diesel fuel,
gasoline and BTEX (sensitivity at parts-per-million) for all samples.
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