sustainability

Green power generation for the olive drab

Purdue University researchers have developed a "tactical biorefinery" that generates electricity from food, paper, and plastic trash. Food waste is fermented into ethanol; other trash is heated under low-oxygen conditions and is converted to propane and methane gas. The mix of fuels is burned in a modified diesel engine.

Apparently they got funding for this because it has military applications (reducing the need for fuel to troops in the field, as well as disposing of much of their trash). But the civilian applications are

more political interference in American science

LiveScience reports on new rules from the Bushies for scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, putting controls on research that might go against the party line:

“I feel as though we've got someone looking over our shoulder at every damn thing we do. And to me that's a very scary thing. I worry that it borders on censorship,'' said Jim Estes, an internationally recognized marine biologist who works for the geological unit. “The explanation was that this was intended to ensure the highest possible quality research,'' said Estes, a researcher at the agency for more than 30 years. “But to me it feels like they're doing this to keep us under their thumbs. It seems like they're afraid of science. Our findings could be embarrassing to the administration.''

Mother Jones: 12 climate tipping points, and the tipping point in human perception to stop them

A heavy article at MotherJones.com investigates a dozen "tipping points" for global warming, any of which could cause sudden and catastrophic climate change - and asks about the thirteenth tipping point, for our perception of it all:

IN 2004, JOHN SCHELLNHUBER, distinguished science adviser at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the United Kingdom, identified 12 global-warming tipping points, any one of which, if triggered, will likely initiate sudden, catastrophic changes across the planet. Odds are you've never heard of most of these tipping points, even though your entire genetic legacy—your children, your grandchildren, and beyond—may survive or not depending on their status.

Reuters: "SkySail" may help ships conserve fuel

Reuters reports on a new type of sail, a sort of giant kite meant to boost a cargo ship's propulsion and save fuel.

"I got the idea on a sail boat a few years ago," Stephan Wrage, inventor and founder of SkySails GmbH & Co. KG, told Reuters. "I love flying kites and found sailing rather slow. I thought the enormous power in kites could somehow be utilized."

The technology he has developed is a throwback to an earlier age of maritime travel when ships relied solely on wind. But it also addresses a key concern of the modern age: climate change.

Nitrous oxide

New Scientist reports on human activity's impact on another greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide:

As a greenhouse gas, N2O is 296 times as powerful as carbon dioxide and accounts for 6 per cent of the greenhouse effect. To better understand the N2O output from forests, Klaus Butterbach-Bahl of the Karlsruhe Research Centre in Germany and team members Per Ambus and Sophie Zechmeister-Boltenstern studied N2O emissions from 11 European forests...

They found that nitrifying soil bacteria thrive on high nitrogen levels, producing mainly nitrates, which are turned into N2O by denitrifying bacteria. As human activity adds more nitrogen to the biosphere, the production of N2O by the bacteria looks set to grow.

'Intersex' fish found in Potomac

LiveScience reports that “intersex" fish, with both male and female characteristics, have been discovered in the Potomac River and its tributaries. This of course raises questions about how whatever contaminants are causing this, will affect the people who drink tap water.

Last month's testing at three tributaries emptying into the Potomac revealed that more than 80 percent of all male smallmouth bass found were growing eggs, according to Vicki S. Blazer, a fish pathologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Contemplating nuclear power

Discussion over at Slashdot about nuclear power, touched off by this piece in the Washington Post. (See also this response the Daily Kos: "Patrick Moore is a paid consultant for the mining, logging, biotech and energy industries, and putting him out as "ex-Greenpeace" is a lot like calling Scooter Libby an "ex-Hill staffer.")

Some excerpts from my posts on the topic:


Is fission less dangerous to the environment than coal? Perhaps. If it were a choice between only between building more coal plants and building fission ones, it's possible that fission might win out. (Though I think it would have to depend of the specifics of the technologies and implementations involved.)

But that's the wrong question.

At best, fission is still a stop-gap: supplies of fissionables are limited, on the order of a century or two at most, perhaps much less. So is it not more reasonable to divert resources to solving the problem right - with fusion reseach, renewables (i.e., using that big fusion reactor in the sky, including ideas like orbital photovoltaics) and better energy efficiency - than to build fission reactors and [push] the problem onto our great-grandchildren? (Or rather, for us non-breeders, our friends' great-grandchildren?)

[The Moore editorial] mentions the Iran situation only to gloss over it, but there are massive security concerns with fission technology.

Also [the Moore editorial] is inaccurate in talking about nuclear waste; the problem is not the U and Pu in spent fuel, which can be processed and reused, but thorium, radium, radon, and radioactive lead isotopes.

Is some of the opposition to fission irrational? Yes. But so is some of its support, based on an almost romantic notion of "man harnassing the mighty power of the atom!"

Bisphenol-A in your polycarbonate water bottle

Somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that polycarbonate plastic was safer to use in beverage and food containers than plastics like PET, that it didn't leach toxic chemicals.

Oops.

Polycarbonate plastic molecules are made up of strings of Bisphenol A (BPA), which was originally created as a synthetic hormone. As polycarbonate ages, wears, or is exposed to heat, acids, or bases, BPA leaches out.

A different sort of "puppy power"...

Reuters reports on a test project to turn dog feces into fuel.

It could be fed into a "digester" to obtain methane. The article states that dogs and cats in the United States produce about 10 million tons of waste a year...might as well use it for something productive.

I was quite impressed with San Francisco's aggressive recycling plan when I visited last year - in addition to bottles, cans, and paper they even have curbside collection for compostable kitchen scraps.

Human health linked to the health of the planet. Duh.

Reuters reports on a World Health Organization report tying human health to the health of the ecosystem:

"Human health is strongly linked to the health of ecosystems, which meet many of our most critical needs," Maria Neira, director of WHO's Department of Protection of the Human Environment told a news conference at the launch of a new report.

As the kids say: uh, duh? Like you hadn't figured this out a long time ago?

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