Friday, October 28, 2011

Roger Ruan talk

Roger Ruan spoke at the U of MN Health and Safety retreat October 26, 2011, on a possible method for distributed biofuel production from cellulosic feed stocks.  Corn stover is the corn stalks produced during corn production.  The non edible biomass is plowed back into the ground.  Often there is more bulk material than is needed by the soil.  Roger's group has developed a microwave process to produce three products a synfuel which can be  used as a power generation source, ash which can be used as fertilizer and a mixed biofuel which can be processed into several different fuel types.  Moving the bulky cellulose material poses significant cost problems for a centralized processing plant.  If the initial processing of the fuel can be done on the farm then the higher energy more compact fuel can be transported to a plant for refining.  His group is developing a plug and play mobile processing unit that could be available for rent or purchase by farmers.

Microwave Assisted Pyrolysis System  - Roger Ruan power point slide

Update:  This is a pdf of Roger Ruan's talk on Bale to Barrel: Distributed Themochemical Biomass Conversions.

Cruise ship replaces moldy dorm

St. Mary's College in Maryland will be moving students out a of a moldy dorm and onto a cruise ship.  It apparently is cheaper than housing them at a local hotel.  Given the propensity for Norwalk viruses to spread in close quarters it will be interesting to see if the students can avoid this fate.  This is a link to the CDC fact sheet for Norovirus on cruise ships.

Photo - CBS WJX Baltimore

Mining the moon

Fox News reports that companies are lining up to mine the polar regions of the moon for resources.  They are hoping to find a source of natural tritium H3 which would be useful in nuclear fusion reactors.  They will also be searching for water and ammonia.  It would be helpful information for a future moon base if they can find fuel sources for a hydrogen fuel cell.  Either ammonia or water could be used as a fuel source.

Astrobiotic Robot Explorer - Astrobiotic Technology

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Mold remediation class at U of Minnesota

The U of MN will be offering a two day mold remediation course January 18 and 19, 2012.  Course information is available at this link.  The class size is limited. The first day of the workshop reviews investigative techniques to find areas of fungal growth and covers issues surrounding sampling and the review of reports.  Participants will get to work with IR cameras, microscopes, samplers and fungal cultures.  The second day of the workshop covers mold remediation.  Participants will learn how to set up a containment and wear proper PPE.

Aspergillus spp. - photo N. Carlson

Monday, October 24, 2011

Algae production next to ethanol plants

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports on plans to locate several algae production facilities near existing ethanol plants.  Surprisingly the most profitable products produced  are Omega 3 fatty acids, fish food and animal feed and not fuels.  The lower value oils produced will be sold for biodiesel or other fuels.   This is a joint venture between BioProcess algae, LLC and Green Plains Renewable Energy.  Recent tests by U of Illinois researchers have found the feed to work well for poultry.  

Additional information is available from a 2007 New York Times article on U of MN researcher Roger Ruan.

Roger Ruan - NY Times photo

According to the November 2011 Discover article on Power Plays, an area the size of Montana would be needed to converted to algae biofuel production to replace our current need for gasoline.  This compares to approximately 1/4 of the country if we were to use corn.  The research into algae is in its early stages.  Donald Weeks a University of Nebraska at Lincoln biochemist compares it to the discovery of teosinte 8,000 years ago which was eventually bred into the modern corn.  We are at the initial discovery stage investigating thousands of species of algae.  At a recent E3 conference the biofuel production between strains and species varied by as much as 10 to 100x.  Other variables such as temperature, sunlight and carbon dioxide levels also affected production.  I anticipate an update on the research on November 7th at the E3 2011 Conference.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Solar panels on U of MN building

UOP at U of MN - U of MN photo

Solar panels will be going on a U of MN building the University Office Plaza as reported in the MN Daily.  It is adjacent to the light rail station (LRT) and the U of MN TCF Bank stadium.  The installation is expected to reduce the electrical load by 3- 5%.  Recommissioning of the building will save an additional 15- 20%.  After the panels are installed there will be an online interface allowing people to keep track of the amount of energy saved.

It will be interesting to see how this progresses as I have worked with this building for many years.  The building has a good location.  Tracking the cold climate maintenance issues associated with the solar panels and the effectiveness of the installation will help with future projects.  I will post pictures after the panels have been installed and provide a link to the monitoring web site.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

USDA wood based biofuels

The USDA is supporting wood based biofuel initiative in the Pacific Northwest.  Local wood produced in proximity to the plant would provide cellulose that would be converted into jet fuel, diesel or ethanol.  The cellulose input would include waste trees during the harvest of more valuable timber and fast growing trees such as aspen grown specifically for processing as a biofuel.

University of Minnesota researchers have been working on improving the growth rate of Aspen trees for the past 20 years and have had success in doubling the production.  The aspen trees can be grown on land that is unsuitable for agricultural food production.  A suitable crop can be generated in seven years.  Late in the summer of 2011 through the fall of 2011 the U of MN Extensions service is producing a seven part Biomass Webinar Series.  Most of the earlier sessions were recorded are available to view online.  Two upcoming free sessions are on October 26th and November 16th.

U of MN Extension Service

It would be interesting to check on research using bamboo as a source of cellulosic fuel because that plant also grows quickly on marginal land and is native to many tropical areas.  

Paper solar cells

MIT researchers are now using paper and plastic as a backing for solar photo cells  Find out more in this article by Kate Taylor MIT prints solar cells on paper.  This can significantly reduce the cost of the solar cell because glass is much more expensive as a backing material than paper or plastic.  The cells are also flexible.  At present the efficiency is at 1% and needs to be increased to make it more practical.

From my perspective, the flexible plastic backing probably from recycled plastic makes more sense as  it will be more resilient in wet environments.  The plastic would also need to be able to withstand wide temperature changes.

Photo from TG Daily

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

World population 7 billion

MSNBC has a good article with an interactive graphic on world population trends.  The graphic provides population data from 1950 with predicted population levels in 2050 for the major areas of the world.  Unfortunately the increase in population is predicted to occur in areas without adequate carrying capacity such as Pakistan and Africa.  The population trend data focuses the problem on sustainable agriculture noted in an earlier post.

Commuter train in Mumbai India -  photo by Rafiq Maqbool / AP

Monday, October 17, 2011

Using DNA to shape nanostructures

Ira Flatow from NPR reports on research using DNA to shape nanostructures by Chad Mirkin from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. His research team has focused on the therapeutic benefits of the nanostructural design but there are applications in many fields of study including solar energy harvesting and energy storage.  The therapeutic applications have been commercialized through a company called Nanosphere

The Nova PBS series Making stuff smaller is available at this link

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Plastic to oil conversion

A Japanese man has developed a small scale plastic to oil convertor.  It heats a wide variety of plastics and converts them into oil.  The oil can be further refined into gasoline, kerosene and diesel fractions.  He would like people to view plastic waste not as garbage to fill up landfills and the oceans but as a fuel source.  Thanks to Anna E. for forwarding this clip.

This may be a way of converting large areas of floating plastic debris in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean into a resource used for oil refining.

Carbon nanotube based solar panels

Northwestern University professors Mark C. Hersam and Tobin J. Marks are developing carbon nanotube solar cells.  In addition to the lower cost of the raw materials the solar cell is also flexible and can be incorporated into fabrics or other materials such as back packs.  It would be interesting to determine if it could be incorporated into parts of a building exterior.  The solar cell would not have to be a separate and recognizably discrete building element.  It could also be interwoven into the roof material.

This is an NSF interview with Mark C. Hersam on the construction of double walled carbon nanotubes.   He has set up the Hersham Research Group to coordinate research activities on the use of carbon nanotubes for optical and electrical devices.  

Friday, October 14, 2011

Renewable energy investment up stock prices down

Investments in renewable energy hit a record in 41.8 billion dollars in the third quarter of 2011.  Stock prices for renewable energy companies fell because of the over supply of renewable products such as solar cells and wind turbines.  It is a good time to be a renewable energy project developer and not a good time to be a manufacturer of the products.   Reporting on this is available from Bloomberg and MPR Marketplace.  Investments in off shore wind farms in Europe and on the East Coast of the US will be increasing in the next year.

Green Investments - MPR stock photo

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sustainable Agricuture for the Future

A recent report by National Public Radio Facing planetary enemy number one agriculture describes the future global impact of agriculture on global patterns of land use.  Agriculture currently covers 40% of the land in the world and uses nearly 2/3rds of the water.  During the next 40 years the demand for food is expected to double.  Jonathan Foley is the Director of the Institute on the Environment at the U of MN.  He advises governments and NGO's on developing sustainable agricultural processes.  He advocates a new kind of agriculture called Terraculture. His major question is "How do we feed the world without destroying it?"

                        Jonathan Foley's talk on "The Other Inconvenient Truth"  from September, 2011

We can compare Haiti and the Dominican Republic and look at two possible futures. The two countries share the same island.  Haiti is completely deforested and in abject poverty.  The Dominican Republic is the exact opposite because of different land use. We are fortunate that we have the opportunity to have some say in our future.

This image taken at the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is from

For more background information on the subject read  Jared Diamond's book Collapse.  He devotes a chapter 11 to the history of land use in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  Deforestation is often a major contributor to the destruction of a culture.  He also looks at the causes for other societal collapses throughout history.

                                             Why Societies Collapse TED talk October, 2008

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bed bug information source

In response to increased public concerns about bed bugs, the U of MN Entomology Department has set up a website.  It includes resources on dealing with bed bugs for students, travelers, landlords, tenants and pest management professionals.  Bedbugs have increasingly become more resistant to chemical treatment and the strategies for pest management have changed to using elevated temperatures to kill the organisms.  More  information on this is available from the University of Nebraska Extension Service.

Update:  The St. Paul Pioneer Press reports that residents of Elsie Mason Manor and Ligutti Towers in Polk County, Iowa have been granted class action status in a lawsuit.  The suit claims that exposures to bed bugs were knowingly covered up by the managers of the assisted living residence for two years.  

Sustainable Neighborhood Design workshop

The University of Minnesota is hosting a Sustainable Neighborhood Design Workshop on November 5th on the St. Paul Campus in Rapson Hall.  The day long event is free and open to the public but does require advanced registration.  The conference will focus on designing sustainable neighborhoods and what we've learned from the past 15 years.  More information is available at Sustainable Neighborhoods.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Steven Jobs 2005 Stanford commencement speech

In June of 2005, Steven Jobs gave the commencement address at Stanford University. This British Guardian article link contains the text of the speech with additional commentary.     He describes his background going up, why it happened to work out for him to drop out of school.  He ended up taking a class in calligraphy which ended up being very important when picking out the fonts and spacing for the word processing interface for Apple computer.  He also talks about why being fired from Apple was the best thing that could have happened to him.  He met his wife, he founded Pixar and it allowed him to continue to focus on what he loves.  He also discusses how the reality of death helps him make the big choices in life.  Each morning he asks himself "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?"  If he he has to answer "No" to many days in a row then he has to make a change.  He encouraged the Stanford graduates to follow their heart.

I appreciate Steven Job's contribution to technology and the creative energy at Pixar.  His story of serendipity with respect to the calligraphy class continually shows up in the biographies of successful people. Continually learning and developing skills seemingly unrelated to the current task at hand often has benefits 10 to 20 years later.

                                            This is a video of his June, 2011 speech. 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Orange goo in Alaskan waters

During August of 2011 a mysterious orange goo washed up on Kavalina, Alaska's shoreline.  Scientists have now determined that an orange rust Urediniospore is the cause.  Jennifer Frazer's blog post The mystery rust of Kivalina, Alaska provides an excellent background discussion on the topic.  She illustrates the complexity of the rust life cycle noting that there are 5 reproductive structures produced by a particular rust organism.  I had only recalled four from my mycology class.  The complex lifestyle makes for some impressive detective work to link these various structures into one organism.

Rust spores from Alaskan waters

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Battling bad science

In this September 2011 talk, Ben Goldacre describes how companies withhold data from trials to manipulate the results from the remaining data. He describes it as taking away half the results from a coin tossing trial and convincing people that you have a two headed coin. He also describes trials that eliminate controls for the placebo effect.  The placebo effect is stronger for two sugar pills than one.  The placebo effect is even stronger when you inject salt water than when you give sugar pills.   You can view his talk on Battling bad science by clicking the hyper link.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Green Roofs

Green roof technology is a classic case of unintended consequences especially if it is not designed properly. The green roofs can look visually pleasing and reduce storm water runoff.  However, an improperly designed green roof allows the roots of the plants to penetrate the roof membrane and allows water to infiltrate the building.  With a three to five inch rain fall event this can result in water damages from 1/4 million to a million plus in US dollars.  Retrofitting an existing roof requires an assessment of the load bearing capacity of the existing roof.  A properly designed system makes it physically impossible for the plants on the roof to contact the roof membrane.  In this darkly humorous article Seeing red over green roofs by By Joseph Lstiburek, he outlines problems and design considerations for green roof technology.  As with all new technologies it is best to learn as much about the design and maintenance of the system before installing it.  

Plant growth on a roof - an unintentional green roof  Photo -N.Carlson

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Bacteria producing diesel

This is an interesting article on using waste carbon dioxide from a gas or coal fired plant and converting it into diesel using bacteria.  Algae is another organism that being used for the same purpose.  It will be interesting to see how the pilot plant in New Mexico will work.  This is a link to a video and news report.

More information at

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Slime Mold

I recently came across a very good article on slime mold.  I've worked with one of the species Dictyostelium discoides. Researchers are using the organisms for several purposes including understanding decision making and using it as a way of plotting out roads in an urban area.  These ancient creatures change from single cell organisms to multicellular creatures capable of producing spores or moving like a slug.  This is a link to the slime mold article.


       Laurie Knight has an excellent collection of photos including some very nice insect pictures.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Patent reform

Congress passed and the President signed Patent Reform Act 2011 for the US.  This is important as it is one of the ways the US secures money from the rest of the world for its intellectual property.  The world mapper  has data from 2002 which graphically illustrates the countries where  most of the patents granted.  Japan and South Korea are two of the other countries with a large number of patents.  Note the lack of patents in South America, Africa and the Middle East.