Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Can you defy gravity in Gravity Iowa?

A while back I thanked gravity, one of the fundamental forces in nature, for providing renewable energy in the form of hydroelectric power. Today I am thinking more of the town of Gravity Iowa. Yes this little town not far from Council Bluffs has a population of some 218 souls. It is also located along the middle branch of the One Hundred and Two River. Yes some guy named a river in Southern Iowa that is a tributary of the North Platte the One hundred and Two River because it was 102 miles from nowhere.

I just gave two talks the past week at Iowa State University. I was invited back to my graduate school thirty two years after gaining my masters degree in thermodynamics. The first talk was on the subject of “Energy and Agriculture”, the second was on the “Carbon and Water Footprints of Manufacturing Biotech Drugs”. Interestingly the audience for the energy and agriculture talk and debate was not partial toward bio-ethanol and in fact the President of The Iowa Farm Bureau who also spoke was not a proponent at all of converting Iowa farm land to switch grass for cellulosic derived bio-ethanol. His opinion was that Iowa farms should produce corn and soy beans for food. Wow! The people on the ground in Iowa who have the most to gain from the cellulosic nonsense would rather feed us food, while the pretenders at the University of California Bezerkly are promoting this cellulosic scientific dead end. Perhaps Berkeley and its Renewable and Inappropriate Energy Lab should relocate to a new river that I will name the 103 Mile River. This river will flow pure bio-ethanol and a billion vehicles will miraculously get their fuel from it without disturbing the earth in any way.

While in Ames, I also spent an hour with my major professor who guided me through my thesis. I thanked him for lighting the fire in me to study thermodynamics and told him that through my articles and my blog I was trying to make this complex subject more understandable to the lay person. We joked that if I could master the laws of thermodynamics then indeed lay people would become energy gurus. I also drove through the countryside between Ames and Des Moines that is perhaps the most fertile farmland on the planet. The seeds had not yet germinated so all one could see was the rick black topsoil that was recently tilled. Here in Marin County we pay five dollars for a two cubic foot bag of topsoil that is only half as good. Mother Nature intended Iowa to be the breadbasket. In a world short of food and protein, the farms in Iowa should produce food and not let misguided government policy steer them toward switch and bait grass.

I did not pass through Gravity Iowa, but If I had I would have posed this question to the police chief about folks who live there and become drunk and disorderly. Are the drunkards defying gravity? If they are defying gravity then the folks at Bezerkly could bottle the bio-ethanol produced there and the road we travel on will always be downhill.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Can the bus beat the airplane to get to Montreal?

Today we thank the fleet-footed dog that gives meaning to speed. Greyhound is also the name of the inter-city bus service that operates a fleet of buses that provide 13,000 daily departures to 2,300 cities and transports over 25 million passengers each year. Greyhound announced last week that their buses will be upgraded to service that meets the needs of twenty first century passengers. New buses with Wi-Fi access, power outlets, three point seat belts, and extra legroom are now being used on the company’s New York to Montreal and New York to Toronto bus routes. Soon more routes will have the Greyhound Running Dog new Prevost X3-45 buses are similar to the buses that rock stars and entertainers use for touring the country.

The X3-45 seats fifty passengers and has a fuel economy of about seven miles per gallon of diesel fuel. If Greyhound manages to fill the buses, the effective fuel economy will be three hundred and fifty miles per gallon. Had all these passengers travelled instead in a Prius together with three other passengers, their effective miles per gallon will only equal approximately two hundred miles per gallon. This proves that buses are the greenest mode of transportation and it would be good public policy for the Feds to give Greyhound some of the bailout and stimulus money. The X3-45 is 45 feet long and has an empty mass of 36,000 pounds and has a diesel tank that holds 208 gallons. It is powered by a 14 liter Detroit Diesel engine that has a capability of delivering 445 horsepower. This is not your Grandmother’s Greyhound bus, it is one sleek and fast bus that will change our opinion of bus travel. The air conditioner is capable of nine tons of refrigeration so you can be rest assured the coach will be comfortable during an August trip from the Big Apple to Montreal.

Had the fifty passengers boarded an Embraer ERJ-145 jet for the trip from New York to Montreal, their carbon footprint would have been five to six times larger than taking a ride in the Greyhound. If the passenger lives in Manhattan and wishes to visit downtown Montreal it could also be argued that they would reach their destination in less time if they opted for the bus for the 331 mile trip. This is due to the fact that JFK is quite remote from Manhattan and so is PET (Pierre Eliot Trudeau) from downtown Montreal, as well as all the time it takes to clear security. The cost of the Greyhound ticket will also be much less than that the cost of the Air Canada ticket. Certainly the leg room in the Embraer ERJ-145 is miniscule and the flight can hardly be described as being luxurious. Greyhound just may have a winner in its new Prevost X3-45 and they may even hand out DVDs of Back To The Future for passengers to watch on their laptops. As most Greyhound terminals are rather dilapidated and as cities are clamoring for stimulus funds we may also see revamped downtown bus terminals. This may be a case where “going to the dogs” may actually be an improvement on what we have.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Is being green being good?

Good News Good News Read All About It! This was the call newspaper vendors used to shout in order to promote sales of their paper to passersby. These days we don’t have too many vendors and in fact we don’t have too many newspapers. In the past month several newspapers in large cities have entered bankruptcy reorganization. I am truly fortunate to write Green Machine for the Tiburon Ark and not the Chicago Sun Times nor the Chicago Tribune as both of these papers are in bankruptcy reorganization.

So what good news do I have for my readers? Today is income tax day and that is good news for the government. The good news for those paying income taxes is that at least they had income. The Chicago newspapers did not have any. The State of California is crying crocodile tears over the reduced tax collection from motor fuels. Gasoline demand in the Golden state declined in 2008 by 4.1% compared with 2007. Diesel demand declined even faster with a corresponding drop of 8.3%. Betty Yee the Chairwoman of the State Board of Equalization put on a happy face as California will meet the Kyoto Protocol due to the reduction in hydrocarbon liquid sales. The reduction in diesel is primarily due to the massive drop in economic activity so let us not celebrate to quickly about our collective greenness. The total taxable gallons of gasoline sold in California in 2008 equaled 15.032 billion gallons. This is the lowest volume of taxable gallons of gasoline since 2001. The data for the taxable gallons of gasoline sold in California for each of the past ten years are available on the following web page The taxable gallons of diesel sold in California in 2008 equaled 2.827 billion gallons, the lowest value since 2003. The data for the taxable gallons of gasoline sold in California for each of the past ten years are available on the following web page
Unfortunately the number of employees working for the State of California increased by 4.8 % between 2003 and 2008. I have a suggestion for the Governator that we limit the growth in government employees to growth in gallons of motor fuel that are sold in the state each year. This proposal would make Proposition 11 look like Chapter 11 for the State Government. We know for sure the volume of motor fuel sold will decrease in the next few years as SUVs become Such Ugly Vehicles. Since Arne is the Jolly Green Giant and a fiscal conservative he should approve of my suggestion on how to limit the size of government. The reduction of 640 million gallons of gasoline consumption in our state in 2008 equals a reduction of over 6 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Let’s not get too excited about how we are saving the planet, we still had carbon dioxide emissions that exceeded 150 million tons from all the gasoline we burned last year. I have a suggestion for saving even more gasoline in the future. Let’s all buy newspapers and stay at home and read instead of driving in our cars. I know some of you may think the printing and distribution of newspapers is energy intensive. I will discuss this in an upcoming article and demonstrate that driving a car each day is many fold more carbon intensive than reading a newspaper each day. We also need a vibrant free press if we wish to keep the goodness going in our country.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Did you know that glass is a liquid?

After last week’s article on jail cells and Bernie being cooped up in an eight by eight without any windows, we will learn about that amazing material we call glass. Glass got its name from the Lain word Glesum meaning transparent and lustrous. In describing glass one may say that it is a transparent material that is of solid nature. This description is actually inaccurate. Glass is not a solid but is rather a super-cooled liquid that has been cooled to a rigid condition without crystallizing. Think of glass as an extremely viscous liquid that will eventually pool up after thousands of years. Glass is to silly putty or molasses what a tortoise is to a hare.

Glass is versatile and is not only used for window panes. As I am an engineer and work in biopharma, I kind of think of glass as the material that test tubes and lab beakers are made from. Thanks to glass scientists have been able to discover millions of molecules including tissue plasminogen activator (TPA), a protein that is used in stroke treatment. Each day that I go to work and lead the team that manufactures TPA, I reflect in wonder that a team of scientists discovered this enzyme more than twenty years ago by their observations of reactions in glass beakers in a lab at Genentech.

Glass also has a major role in energy conservation. Homes and buildings are insulated with glass fiber. Owens Corning a leading manufacturer of glass fiber insulation, has registered the trademark “PINK” for its brand of insulation material. They have also licensed the “Pink Panther” image for their marketing campaigns. Glass fiber insulation has perhaps done more for energy conservation that any other material ever invented. A close second may be expanded polystyrene that is also used to insulate buildings. The physics of an insulator is that it is a material that is a poor conductor of heat. Glass fiber and expanded polystyrene incorporate void spaces that are filled with air and these void spaces in turn limit the speed at which heat is conducted through a material. The ultimate insulator is created when the void space is not filled with air but rather contains nothing and this is called a vacuum. We all have Thermos Bottles and these bottles have a vacuum in the annular space between the exterior and interior of the container. Before Thermos Bottles were manufactured from stainless steel they used to be manufactured from glass that was coated with a shiny metal. I was pretty clumsy as a kid and dropped a few thermos bottles only to have them shatter.

I know that many of my neighbors and friends think that the best use of glass is to fabricate the bottle in which wine or beer is placed. No doubt this is a good way to preserve the beverage and prevent oxidation. However glass bottles have a far greater carbon footprint in their manufacture, cleaning, and transportation than those cardboard cubes with a mylar plastic bladder inside that some less expensive wines are now being sold in. If Latin was not a dead language and was still being spoken the word for these containers would be Cavus, which means to cave. The cave I was thinking of was not the hollow in the mountain where the barrels are stored but the caving in of the bladder.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Did you know the Zulus gave us Impalas long before GM?

The G word of the week is a Gazelle. The term gazelle is used for animals that belong to a wide range of antelope. Gazelles are known for their speed and ability to run for an extended period of time. It is time to name a car a Gazelle. Chevrolet does have an Impala. For many years taxonomists incorrectly placed Impalas in the same species as Gazelles. The word Impala come from Zulu and the Zulu’s did not distinguish between gazelles and impalas they simply called any animal that looked like an impala an impala. The Zulus were driving Impalas long before Darwin and the study of Origin Of A Species.

This makes me think that all cars are beginning to look the same. Engineers at the various auto companies test shapes of cars for aerodynamic drag in wind tunnels and either they are all coming to the same conclusion on the best shape to minimize the drag coefficient or they are just copying each other and producing cars that all look alike. The 2009 Chevrolet Impala looks like the 2009 Toyota Camry. This was not the case in 1959 when the car that Toyota made could fit in the trunk of a 1959 Chevrolet Impala. The 1959 Chevrolet Impala had fins the size of a great white shark and an engine the size of a locomotive. Maybe we are lucky that just about all cars are looking the same and almost performing the same. All this sameness means that most car brands are now a commodity and they simply have to lower their price to sell to the average Joe.

On my way to Starbucks this morning I passed by the Porsche dealership and they have a bunch of used cars for sale. Interesting two used cars on the lot that were parked side by side had the same sale price of $16,999. These two cars were a 2005 BMW Z4 Roadster and a 2009 Smart For Two. These are two cars that do not look the same nor perform the same, although they both only seat two people. The Z4 is a zippy car that kind of like looks like sports cars out of the 1950s and the Smart For Two is the car of the future. The Z4’s engine has three times the displacement of the Smart (three liters versus one) and the Z4 has four times the horsepower, yet the Smart has the same price. Does this mean value is now being placed on fuel efficiency and ease of parking or is this simply a fad that Smarts are cool to drive? I hope it means that we are now making that sea change in our driving habits and we are once again not simply ignoring the rapid depletion of the fossil fuel reserves on the planet and the concurrent increase in carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. The Zulu word for being a fool or not so smart is Mampara and growing up as a child in South Africa we would tease each other that we were Mamparas. Today is April Fools’ Day, but now that the world depends on wise choices in our collective energy policy let’s not be Mamparas .