Archive | May 2011

Green Driving

Prius power On Wednesday, the deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change, Heather Zichal, gave her support for Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn)’s  Electric Vehicles Bill (S. 948), saying that it could be a means for moving and generating bipartisan energy legislation. Although it may seem like going electric is a win for the environment, the push for more electric cars may reduce our dependence on fuel but it will not necessarily decrease our carbon footprint.

As we are look to develop and deploy plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV), there are emissions associated to the additional electricity that will be needed for the vehicles. Therefore, what is also needed is a new policy for the power sector to be able to supply low-carbon emission electricity. I was happy to see, also at the start of this week, a white paper released by the Brookings Institution that outlines a proposal for the National Clean Energy Standard that encourages power distributors to adopt, buy or generate their own power through a variety of low-emissions technology in order to meet the outlined standard. This type of technology-neutral approach is interesting and perhaps much more palatable than cap and trade because the system would, for example, allow for a coal plant to be rewarded if it was able to outfit itself with carbon capture technology or any other means to increase its efficiency.

Another means in which electric cars have an impact on our environment through means we may not realize are the battery materials in electric cars. There have been several studies published in Environmental Science and Technology journal assessing the life-cycle of the batteries in plug-in hybrid vehicles and battery electric vehicles. Most recently, Ander Hammer StrØmman from Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) published such a paper looking generally at Lithium-Ion and Nickel Metal Hydride Batteries (NiMH) (currently the type of battery in the Toyota Prius in the US). This study is unique in that the authors focus their comparitive unit on the amount of energy charged and then discharged by the battery – eliminating factors such as powertrain and driving cycle that is normally assumed when the unit is driving distance or range – thereby solely looking at the environmental impact of the battery.The authors found that with the exception of ozone depletion potential, Nickel Metal Hydride battery had the highest environmental impact. They rationalize that the greater efficiency of the Li-ion attributes to its lower environmental impact, with 2-3 times more storage over its lifetime. In addition, Li-ion batteries uses earth abundant materials. However, where the greatest technological improvement is needed is in the manufacturing energy requirements; for all three batteries that accounted for 97% of the ozone depletion/global warming potential.

It is a great start to want to widely deploy electric vehicles as they do have the potential to decrease emissions. However, policy may want to focus not just on the emissions of the vehicle when consumers are driving and charging but also include the environmental impact during the vehicles entire life cycle. I have only focused specifically on the battery component as that is where I see the most chemistry. But there are a number of aspects that can be improved in order for these green vehicles to be as green as they can be.

Field Emission SEM of Ni-Co-Mn Hydroxide
Image taken by Argonne scientist improving Li-ion battery technology. Images like this help to better understand what is going on at the nanoscale in order to develop new materials.

Taste used to be a laboratory characterization technique

This is my guinea pig, Oreo

In April, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D – NJ) introduced the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 (S.847), this act is a reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA). As many environmental laws have been modernized to keep up with advances in science and technology, it is time that this was done for TSCA. TSCA has been incredibly limiting and makes it difficult for the EPA to regulate chemicals. This new act does not necessarily make it any easier, but it is a start to reform legislation that is very out of date. Regulations of chemicals is a very difficult task because there are chemicals everywhere, from the neodymium magnets in your headphones to the mercury in fluorescent lighting; but aside from the magnitude of the task, I do applaud the efforts of Senator Lautenberg, Congressmen Waxman and Rush. There are many chemicals that are important to our daily lives but some do have a harmful side effects depending on the exposure amount, form (ex: the drug thalidomide), complexing potential and many other factors. An attempt to reform TSCA is a good idea as it is important for both for the future of human health and the environment to find and remove chemicals that are toxic and hurting the environment.

The new act now places industry to be responsible for proving the safety of a chemical before it can go on the market. But a few concerns that I have with this are: what are the incentives for the chemical industry to do so according the health standards that will be laid out? Are there consequences when chemicals are not vetted correctly? I am especially glad that the chemical industry is, in general, in support of this act; however, I also realize that safety research is complex (as in all science, it is difficult to tease out the exact cause when not all factors can be accounted for) and not necessarily economically valuable for the time and resources it consumes.  So how do we ensure that they will be willing to give the right safety data to EPA?

Additionally in the Safe Chemicals Act, there will be open access to chemical information, in establishing a public database of chemical information. Here, I fear that just access to data is not enough. Perhaps along with the public disclosure of safety information is a reform in the format and presentation of the information. We want the information to be interpreted correctly, so that important chemicals will not be removed due to a misunderstanding by the masses. There should be a new system for presenting safety data (very different than the current MSDS data). I see a similar transition to how we have revamped presenting the nutrition information so that the general public are made aware of the sugar intake they are consuming in a 1.9 oz cup of cereal (both with and without milk).

My favorite part of this new legislation is that it will finally bring forward the necessity for chemical industries to think greener. The Safe Chemicals Act will create grant programs and research centers that will investigate and develop safe chemical alternatives. But what is important is that we are not only finding these chemicals but in the bill there is a means to quickly review and put to use green chemicals that have been adequately tested.

This is a good start. There is a lot of work to do. EPA and industries will need a lot of help. Here’s an infographic to give you an idea for how many chemicals are out there.

Note about title: The title is not meant to indicate that I am advocating the need to implement taste in our analysis to insure safe chemicals, but more of a “can you believe that?!”. Talk about not wanting to be a guinea pig. Then, if you were a scientist, you were a guinea pig.

Why go where no one has gone before

“Every vision is a joke until the first man [or woman] accomplishes it” – Robert H. Goddard

Shuttle launches are a great opportunity to tout my science nerd flag. What other event gets so much of the nation to pay attention to an amazing feat of science?
STS-134 Endeavour Launch (201105160002HQ)

Later in this blog post I will present to you a bit of NASA research tangentially related to my own research.

It is a very sad to think that there is just one more shuttle launch left. But then the next question is what is next for the space program? Especially now that we are in the throws of a budget debate, how much of federal funding actually goes to the space program?

Space expenditures are actually quite minimal in comparison to defense spending. In the President’s FY 2012 budget, NASA has requested a total of about 18.7 billion (relatively flat according to Chairman Wolf). For perspective, the Department of Defense has requested 670.9 billion.

Nonetheless we are in difficult economic times and the questions that are being asked is not quite “how much”? but “why”? Because if we have the motivation, we can get anything done within a budget.

The biggest question that surrounds space policy are the rationale for such a scientific endeavor in which the benefits are for the most part taken on faith. The rationale has evolved significantly since its inception in 1958. However, because it was born out of a desire for national security, it might have prevented it from emphasizing scientific exploration or commercial development. And the question is now, with military rationale is less of an emphasis, can economic competitiveness and civilian space be enough to continue to drive the space program?

Yet, one of my favorite rationale that perhaps is not as prevalent in the public’s view as civilian space flight, are the scientific advances that have succeeded as a result of our desire for space.


Blue Hazy Material is a Aerogel

One such advancement I see potential in is the commercialization of Aerogel.

Aerogel is the blue hazy material, in the image, that is holding up the crayons and keeping them from melting.  This material is insulating the Mars Rover keeping it warm, and was the only material that could capture interstellar dust at the high speeds Stardust would be traveling. What I believe to be most exciting, is that Stardust was able to capture the amino acid glycine. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins that carry out important functions in our bodies! Indicating that perhaps there are important pre-biotic molecules in space!

But why should you care about this material? It is easy to support the space program that offers protection and national security or that satisfy the human desire for exploring the unknown (both can be categorized as intangible benefits). Can we care just as much about the economic benefit (perhaps a more tangible benefit?) of a material that NASA used that is as light as air (as it is 99.8% air), less dense than glass, and is a good insulator?  If NASA or the private sector can take this material and continue to do innovative research, we could figure out how to make this material cheap and transparent, for insulated windows. Then this material would be an invaluable contribution to our push to improve energy efficiency.

This is just a very very very tiny snippet of why we need the space program. And it is just the science exploration rationale. I have not yet gone into rationale such as the military applications, satisfying human destiny and commercial/satellite applications. Dr. J.M. Logsdon puts it best:

“Is travel beyond Earth orbit the only sustainable rationale for human space flight? How widely shared is the belief that human travel to other destinations in the solar system…is a high priority societal goal? If [these questions] are answered well, the 21st century could see the full realization of both the practical and inspirational potentials of space.”

Roger Handberg, “Rationales of the Space Program” in Eligar Sadeh, Space Politics and Policy (2002)
John M. Logsdon, “Which Direction in Space?” Space Policy, May 2005
David A. Mindell, et al, “The Future of Human Spaceflight: Objectives and Policy Implications in a Global Context,” American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2009

What did you learn in undergrad?

As we are in commencement season, a very interesting op-ed appeared in the NYTimes this weekend about students who seem to complete an undergraduate career having done the minimal. While I don’t doubt that colleges have been much more focused on appealing to students to gain admissions and that perhaps the courses are not as rigorous as they should be, it is interesting to think about (as the author suggests) measures of learning by pages read or improvement on the Collegiate Learning Assessment.

I mention this because in educational spheres I have heard the notion that perhaps learning has changed in the 21st century – not that universities have adapted a new educational style to unconsciously accommodate – and that merely the number of pages read does not correlate to the critical thinking skills gained.  Some of the most valuable insight I gained in my undergrad career were through the informal discussions we had in class. How does one measure the debates that were presented that taught me how to think about problems in unique ways?

Therefore, my suggestion would not be to only have the Department of Education offer data on undergraduate learning, but to also criticize the means by which that data is taken and to brainstorm creative ways to fix our undergraduate system so that students do get the most out of their colleges.

I know that when I graduated college and now as I am preparing to complete my PhD, students do want to feel that they will be prepared to enter the workforce and be successful with the degree. So while I agree with the op-ed that perhaps new fancy gyms and deluxe dorms attract students, and perhaps are meant to showcase the endowments gained by successful former alumni, universities should investigate means to better tout the achievements of their former alumni. (for me, I have plans to purchase a new NMR for my undergrad)

Green Jobs for the Chemical Industry

Question: Does creating green jobs in the chemical industry promote job growth?

This week a new report was released by the BlueGreen Alliance titled: The Economic Benefits of Green Chemical Industry in the United States. Showcasing that chemistry policy reform  would create jobs and promote innovation. It addresses the concern that many have about chemical policy reform cutting jobs and stifling innovation. The authors demonstrates that innovation in sustainable chemistry would bring new opportunities. The chemical industry is a valuable part of our economic security because of its prevalence in our everyday lives from bringing products to consumers, to mitigating the impact of products on health and the environment. If we can transition to a more sustainable chemical policy, it will reduce the number of hazardous chemicals, promote innovation that will protect people’s heath and the environment.

The authors of the report claim that the current Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA) is weak, making it nearly impossible for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to oversee and regulate the development and marketing of chemicals it has not already proven to be harmful. Last month, Senate Democrats introduced a reformed TSCA that would require the EPA to collect basic health and safety information for 80,000+ chemicals already on the market and new compounds. The authors claim that a stricter TSCA would put US manufacturers on par with Canada and European regulations, forcing the industry to develop more innovative products, leading to new markets. However, as an article in iWatch points out, there needs to be a balance in regulation so that it does not become cumbersome.

Green innovative products are increasingly becoming essential to protect the health and well-being of consumers and the environment; however, perhaps we might need more than the forceful hand of regulations to drive the enduser, investors, buisnesses to want these green products and emerging markets.

Advice on how to think like a science policy analyst?

What questions do science policy analysts ask?

I feel that by now, after several years of graduate school, (not going to say how many because then you will anticipate how many I have left, and already, I am my own worst enemy for ridiculous expectations) I can think like a chemist. I generally know what questions to ask or avenues to pursue when a reaction doesn’t work or the interesting questions/next steps after reading a journal article in my field.

so how about science policy analysts?

Letter to House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee

Activity: Engaging in the political discourse.

Resource: One of the resources that started me on this journey was Act4Chemistry, the ACS legislative network. Their Office of Public Affairs will every now and then send out emails that update its members about the workings of congress that most effects its (largely chemists based) membership. They encourage its members to engage in the political discourse by encouraging them to send letters to policy makers if they also agree with the society’s stance on a particular issue.

Latest Issue: There is a letter being circulated by Representative Judy Biggert (R-IL) and Rush Holt (D-NJ) as a bipartisan effort to continue prioritizing innovation and scientific research in building a better America. The letter encourages House appropriators to support innovation fueled by scientific research – specifically research made possible through investments in the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science.

Here is what I would add to my letter: As a scientist who cares deeply about the environment and knows that it is essential that we begin the transition to alternative fuels and forms of renewable energy to both satisfy our exorbitant use of energy and to protect our planet, DOE is one of the key agencies to help us reach those goals. Not only do options like alternative fuels and forms of renewable energy save our valuable resources, it also creates jobs, boosting the economy. Yes, the workforce will need a new set of skills and will have distinct expertise but that is not to say these cannot be taught or gained. We must head towards this direction to be competitive.  I am not only a scientist but a part of the future workforce and therefore equally as worried about the future; so in this case I hope that funding towards DOE will continue to help the nation meet long-term competitive and energy needs so then I can be a part of that journey.

If you also feel that sustained and reliable funding to DOE is important, you can submit your own letter showing your support here. Add your own experiences and reasons why the Office of Science is a vital program and that responsible investments there will greatly benefit the Nation.

STEM fields

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Often it is used in the context of describing the status of STEM education.  I am here in attempts to educate myself about the world of science policy. I hear that those interested in policy are often referred to as “policy wonks”. In combining the two, I am a STEM Wonk.