Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Chevy Volt Update

Reuters reports that the National Highway Transportation Safety Board (NHTSB) has opened an investigation into electrical fires occuring during crash tests of the Chevy Volt.  The investigation is not limited to the Volt but covers all cars with lithium battery packs.  Chevy has offered owners concerned about their car safety a loaner car until the NHTSB investigation is complete. 


Dan Carney from MSNBC provides some perspective on the fires noted in the Volt crash tests.  Under most circumstances you will have a minimum of at least three days to exit the damaged car before a fire starts.  This should more than sufficient time for the jaws of life to extract you from the car.   For a car with a large gas tank the time to exit would be considerably less than three days.  GM spokesman, Dan Martin notes that outside the test facility none of the five or six severe Chevy Volt crashes has resulted in a fire.

Ford Pinto Scene from Top Secret

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Carbon dioxide vs. GDP

NPR reports on climate change trends for the world starting in 2006 and the predictions for 2030.  The plot of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and the chart of carbon dioxide emissions versus GDP is informative.  The US and China produce roughly the same amounts of CO2.  The US GDP is 3 times that of China.  The European Unions GDP is greater than the US and its carbon production is 2/3rds that of the US.    The GDP to carbon ratio is a good measure of a country's efficiency.

2009 CIA World Fact book

Country      GDP$billion/Metric ton CO2

China                           0.6
Russia                         1.0
India                            1.0
US                               2.0
Brazil                           2.0
EU                               3.4
Germany                      3.9
Japan                           4.0

Source Scripps Institution of Oceanography
  The carbon dioxide data above mirrors the outdoor carbon dioxide data I have taken
  during the course of indoor air investigations.  I will take an outdoor control reading to check the
  field calibration of my instrument along with regular calibration with a known concentration.
  In the middle 80's I was measuring outdoor carbon dioxide at 340 ppm.  I now  measure
  outdoor levels of 380 ppm carbon dioxide.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Creating a green pilgrimage site

NPR describes efforts by the Golden Temple at Amritsar, India to become more sustainable.  Over ten thousand Sikhs visit the temple daily.  They are installing solar hot water heating systems to use in the kitchen for cleaning the dishes used to feed the people visiting the temple.  They are also working on developing rain water collection systems to reduce the amount of water used.

Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, India  Photo: David Bouskill

These measures do not yet include the amount of energy needed for individuals to make their pilgrimage to the site.  The World Tourism Organization reports that 300 million people make a religious pilgrimage each year.

250 MW solar Towers in California

Earth Techling reports on BrightSource Energy's proposed trio of 250 MW solar towers in California.  An explanation of the technology is available at BrightSource Energy's web site.  The two tank molten salt energy storage is a big plus.  The molten salt stores heat and allows for additional energy production when the sun sets. 

Two Tank molten salt storage system- Photo: BrightSource Energy

BrightSource Energy LPT Solar Thermal Energy System - Photo  Earth Techling

Electric car timeline and the New DeLorean DMC-12

NPR provides a timeline of electric car development in the United States.  At the early stages in development, the electric car was seen as a much cleaner alternative to the manure produced by horses and the exhaust from the gasoline powered vehicles.  The problem with the electric car has always been the range of 80 to 100 miles and the anxiety associated with being stranded.  Shortening the charging time, increasing the range and improving the performance of the vehicle in cold weather are the same challenges that were faced in the early 1900's.

In other electric car news, NPR reports the DeLorean DMC -12 will be repurposed as an electric car and not a fusion powered car as seen in the Back to the Future movie series.  It is scheduled to be on the market in 2013 with a a price tag around $80,000.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Eurozone Foreign debt chart

The BBC news has produced an interactive chart illustrating a countries level of debt and their primary creditors as of June 2011.  Many countries have debt levels that are unsustainable.  I was surprised that the foreign debt per person was higher in the UK than Greece or Italy.  In terms of the ratio of foreign debt to GDP, Ireland is in the worst position at 1,093%.   The UK is in second place at 436%.  In contrast, the US is at 101% of GDP.  The US leads in total foreign debt at over 10 trillion euros with the UK in second place at 7.3 trillion euros.   It will be interesting to revisit this chart over the coming years and determine which countries improve their situation.

Chart from

Read the chart above clockwise from the top to match the colors with the country.

Additional charts on the European debt crisis can be found here.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Permo-Triassic Fungal Apocalypse

Jennifer Frazer in her Artful Amoeba Blog offers a fascinating article about a layer of possible fungal mycelia in sedimentary rocks approximately 250 million years ago during the the Permian-Triassic Extinction.   Scientists have referred to the organism as Reduviasporonites but they bear a close resemblance to the modern Rhizoctonia solani.  A friend of mine spent her years in graduate school attempting to identify species of this organism at the U of MN Plant Pathology Laboratory.  She would grow the organisms in culture and then use a doughnut hole cutter to extract mycelia of the same age for chemical analysis.  The organism is important both as a plant decay fungi and in some cases mycorrhizal (breaking down nutrients in soil allowing plants to grow).

During this period of Great Dying 75% of the terrestrial land life was destroyed.  It would have been a perfect time for this organism to ingest decaying vegetation.  When the vegetation was consumed the organism would produce a scleroderma like structure (a tight ball of mycelia) to ride out a period with low amounts of decaying vegetation.  Both the filamentous and scleroderma-like structure are found in the fossil record.

Nicholas P. Money, professor of Botany, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio has written a book covering the more recent success of fungal plant pathogens in wiping out trees and other species.  His book is titled The Triumph of Fungi - A Rotten History.  He lays out the moderately successful and sometimes futile attempts of humans to control destructive adaptable fungal pathogens.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Germany's Renewable Energy Experience

At the November, 2011 Minneapolis E3 conference, Friedo Sielemann, a green energy point person based at the German Embassy in Washington, DC provided information on Germany's path  toward a low carbon economy.  Germany has reduced their 2010 carbon emissions to 24% below the levels in 1990.  Many of the new houses constructed in Germany have zero carbon footprint.  Due to generous reimbursement rates and lower prices for solar panels the residential installation of solar panels has grown rapidly in the country.  The government subsidy has now been reduced because individuals were able to actually make a profit off of the excess energy produced by the panels with previous reimbursement rates.

In Germany 370,000 jobs have been created in renewable energy.  Germany will be focusing on developing off shore wind power to reach their goal of increasing the amount of  renewable energy generated through electrical power and to offset the lost power from the elimination of the nuclear power plants by 2020.

During his power point Mr. Sielemann provided a chart illustrating the inverse correlation between Germany's GDP and the level of green house gas emissions.  Dan Haugen from Midwest Energy News provides additional information in his November 7, 2011 article.

Red line - GDP   Blue line- Total energy production  Green line - Green house gas emissions - ppt slide

Geothermal compressed carbon dioxide

At the November E3 conference in Minneapolis, Dr. Martin Saar reported on the use of high pressure carbon dioxide for use in electrical power generation.  The carbon dioxide has the benefit that it can be used in formations where the temperature is less than 100 degrees C and the gas is less geologically disruptive than water used in geothermal energy.  This is a post from an IREE news brief on the subject.   Dr. Saar worked with a graduate student Jimmy Randolph on the project.  They have applied for a patent.  The carbon dioxide would be extracted from a coal or natural gas fired power plant and used to create additional energy while simultaneously sequestering the carbon dioxide.

Dr Saar and Jimmy Randolph

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Fewer particulates plus high carbon dioxide equals a warmer planet

NPR reporter Richard Harris describes unintended consequences of cleaning up the particle pollution in the air in a November 11, 2011 report.  Particulate air pollutants contribute to respiratory problems such as asthma.  The effort to control these particulates has the unintended effect of increasing the amount of solar radiation to the planet and speeding up climate change.  This is due to the combination of increased carbon dioxide and reduced particulate production.  The reduction of  particulate matter is much easier to accomplish through point source reduction and the use of fuels generating lower amounts of particulates.

If wildfires such as those in Texas this past summer become more common, then the particulate generation could offset the man made production of the particulates.  The CDC has a link on the health effects of wildfire particulates. 

Wild fire photo from CDC  
Carbon sequestration of emissions from plants is another approach to controlling the temperature.  Sally Benson from the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory describes the technology and risks involved in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. 

According to reports from the USGS, a carbon dioxide produced tree kill zone area is visible in the Mammoth Mountain Long valley caldera in California.  The photo below is from a climate change skeptics web site.  Could this be possible if there was a leak from at a man made carbon dioxide sequestration site?

Tree kill zone near Mammoth Mountain California

Chevy volt catches fire three weeks after crash test

Concerns about EV vehicles were raised after a Chevy Volt caught fire in a NHTSA parking lot three weeks after a routine side impact safety test.  An article in noted that no other similar fires had been reported in EV vehicles including the volt.  GM noted that the electrical charge should be drained from a vehicle after a crash although GM told the testers after the fire and not before. 

Chevy Volt side impact crash - Photo

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Jet biofuel use increases

A Monday November 7th a continental flight from Houston to Chicago used a biofuel blend made from algae.  NPR reports this as the first US commercial airline use of biofuels.   NPR also reports that the Air Force and Navy have also begun to use biofuels with the Navy setting a goal of 50% biofuel use by 2020.  Currently biofuels cost 10 x that for regular jet fuel.  The hope is to bring the cost down by improving the refining process.

The camelina plant is used for biofuel for Air Force planes in Abeline, Texas.   More information about Camelina oils can be found at this website.   Camelina is in the mustard seed family and a distant relative to canola.  The plant has low moisture requirements and a short growing season with harvest in late July. The high omega 3 oil can be used as a feed supplement or as a component of biofuels. The USDA is working on approval for use of Camelina for food and feed to humans and animals.

Camelina - photo Montana Dept. of Agriculture


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Demographic problems in Russia

The PBS News Hour reports on the Russian problem with declining population demographics.  The current Russian birthrate is 1.4 births per woman in 2010.  This is below the 2.1 birthrate needed to sustain the population.  Unfortunately the country also has a higher than normal death rate for individuals age 20-45.  This has largely been attributed to a high rate of alcoholism which accounts for 600,000 premature deaths per year.

It will be interesting to note how Russian society deals with these two issues.  There have been some positive trends lately in life expectancy and birth rate.   Unfortunately the current path is still unsustainable.  One demographer described it as a European birth rate with an African death rate.  It is a problem that can not be solved by traditional engineering but will require a change in Russian culture and society.

This is a link to a graph of recent Russian Federation population trends.

Prediction of population trends from:
Update Nov. 17, 2011:  In addition to a decline in birth rate the LA Times reports an increase in emigration from Russia.  Roughly 1.5 million Russians have left the country in the past ten years.  The reasons for leaving have been economic and for some political.  Unfortunately for Russia, many of the individuals are well educated, with skills similar to the Russian physicist who now works in Japan.  Some emigrants have returned after finding economic conditions no better outside of Russia but the general trend is clear with 100,000 plus people leaving each year.  A recent survey found that nearly 40% of 18 to 35 year old Russians are considering leaving the country.  

Biomass gasification

At the E3 conference on November 7, 2011, Lowell Rasmussen from the U of MN Morris spoke about the 15 million BTU biomass gasification plant which uses corn cobs and wood chips to provide steam heat and chill water for the 1 million square foot campus. The process of getting the boiler up and operating was not easy as caked mineral deposits had to be physically removed from the boiler when the temperature of the operation was not properly controlled.

Initial research had focused on the use of loose corn stover as a fuel.  There were problems as this material needed to be compacted to burn properly.  As the cost of natural gas has come down, they needed a material that could be used without additional processing.   Corn cobs were the best fit.   The cobs could be stored during the winter, they did not require additional equipment during harvesting and the cobs remove fewer nutrients out of the soil than the corn stover.   The contract with the farmer fixed the price of the corn cobs  to the BTU cost of natural gas. The farmer supplying the corn cobs reapplies the char left over from the process to the soil to reduce the soil nutrient loss.

For a virtual tour of the biomass facility go to this link from the web site on U of MN Renewable Energy Initiatives.

Model of the biomass facility

Green chemistry and sustainable polymers

Marc Hillmyer gave a talk on green chemistry and sustainable polymers at the IREE conference at the U of MN on November 8, 2011.  Marc is the director at the Center for sustainable polymer research at the U of MN.   He outlined the economic benefits for green chemistry in the US.  He argued that we need plastics that harness nature's complexity. We need to use non petroleum based sustainable bioresources for our polymers.   The materials need to be functional and then degrade rapidly after they are used.  He pointed to the Pacific Garbage Patch that contains plastic designed to last for a long time.

EPA surveys brownfield sites for renewable energy

Fox News reports that the EPA and NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) is surveying the country for renewable energy sites at former landfills and other blighted sites including a copper mine in New Mexico.  This has the potential for converting eyesores into an area with productive land use.  If the Vikings stadium is not built in Arden Hills this could be another use for that site. 

New Mexico copper mine - Photo from

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Powering the Dream

Alexis Madrigal, a writer for the Atlantic Monthly, spoke at the E3 conference at the U of MN McNamara Alumni Center on November 8, 2011.  He suggested that we deal with climate change not as an effort to save the planet but as an effort to save civilization.  He opened with a photo of a snow storm that shut down New York last winter.  If climate change will result in more extreme weather events then there will be a push to slow it down because the extreme weather events make it difficult for civilization to work as designed.  Alex is the author of the new book Powering the Dream - the history and promise of green technology.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

U of MN Wind turbine research at Rosemount

On October, 25, 2011 the wind turbines were started at the U of MN U More Park in Rosemount, MN.  The turbine will be used to research issues with operating a turbine in a cold climate.  Additionally, research into radar interference, ice buildup, wind blade design and wind farm design will be conducted.  The turbine will be able to supply energy for up to 600 homes. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

John Bonner's slime mold movies

Princeton University Professor, John Bonner made time lapse slime mold movies.  Because the post on slime mold has been the most popular on this blog, I've included a brief movie below.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Tesla's electric cars sold out for 2012

Fox News reports that the luxury electric car company Tesla has sold out its 2012 electric cars through a preorder system.  It had planned to produce 5,000 cars and it has orders for 6,500.  The company plans to reveal electric SUV prototype in January, 2012.

Tesla car - photo Fox News

Cutting the cords on electric cars

New technology is in the works to charge electric hybrid cars without using a plug in.  Rachel Kaufman discusses the Scientific American article with NPR's Robert Segal.  A specific frequency electromagnetic frequency is used to eliminate problems with magnetic fields and other equipment.  It may also be possible to include the charging as part of the roadway but that is in the more distant future.  There are also some technical and cost problems to overcome.   The home charging is already being tested with a roll out expected within the next ten years.

Photo U of Michigan from Scientific American Article

GE website on energy efficiency

The Ecomagination web site has a good assortment of information on the latest technological innovations to improve energy efficiency while highlighting new sources of energy.  One of the articles highlights Greenstart, a business that provides seed money and mentoring to clean tech start ups in the San Francisco area.  Applications for a new round of funding started in October, of 2011.

Greenstart - GE Image

Sustainable community in Silver Bay, MN

The University of Minnesota Duluth Center for Sustainable Community Development has partnered with the city of Silver Bay, MN to form VICTUS Farms.  It is a self sustaining ecosystem using algae, fish tanks and a greenhouse.  A power point presentation is available at through  The ground breaking ceremony took place on October 24, 2011.

The CHP facility at VICTUS - Photo