Archive | June 2011

The Things They Carried

“Mobility is freedom and progress.” – Bill Ford, TED talk, TED2011

This post is to shed a bit of light on the extent of our fuel dependency that you might not hear about everyday. Until recently, I also did not realize how the energy needs of our vehicles, communication devices, GPS, computers, and robots impacted our military. Plus, the other reason for discussing this issue and the strategies that the Army and Marines are doing to decrease their energy demand is that we are in the throws of another budget/debt ceiling debate in Congress. And what are we spending a majority of tax payer money on besides Medicare and Social Security? Defense. And that, as I hope to outline, is also an energy and environment matter.

The Department of Defense (DOD) R&D budget proposal for the FY 2012 is $77.8 billion. The DOD knows what it should be working on with this funding: Energy. And they are doing so for two reasons: 1.) to lighten the load in which our troops carry, a minimum of 20 pounds of which are the seven types of batteries being carried in addition to their gear and 2.) to save the resources and personnel required to protect convoys that transport fuel.  There are a number of reasons why our energy demands are detrimental to our military. Cost: the Government Accountability Office has the DOD spending at least $2.1 billion on power sources between 2006 and 2010. Danger: the weight of the batteries cause physical harm to the soldiers, perhaps even long-term, not to mention decreasing the effectiveness of these soldiers in combat. Strategic: Where does the fuel come from? It is transported, like many other supplies, through hazardous, mine-infested roads. You can see how maintaining the upper hand on our adversaries while gaining the necessary energy to have that advantage is a logistical nightmare.

An important start is to get better data on the DOD energy use. There is information about how much was purchased, but not information about where it is used. In the works are more automated energy-measurement systems to collect better data and be able to analyze where the most energy use is taking place.

Second is to develop centralized and standardized power that is reliably distributed. This can decrease the reliance on batteries as well as decrease the number of different batteries in which soldiers carry. One of the problems with rechargeable gadgets (and we all experience this with our devices at home) is that each requires specific chargers and batteries. Standardized power would also be much more adaptive and establish legacy systems. A majority of the DOD’s equipment like tanks and aircrafts are quite old. There needs to be considerations about the reliability and legacy of the new vehicles. What energy source are we going to use? And the vehicles that we build, will they use the same source 50 years from now? 70 years from now?

Many of the efforts that the DOD is deploying for decreasing its energy demand can also be done at the national level. Perhaps the problems do not seem has immediate as that of the military (protecting the lives of our troops and not placing them in unnecessarily in harms way); however still urgent. 1.) data acquisition: where can we decrease our energy use? The need for real time data. This is one of the most important things that we can do. Last week the White House hosted an event unveiling the policy for modernizing our grid system. At the event, they had two high school students who had sysytems installed that monitored the energy use of their school. They were able to decrease the schools energy use by 13 percent and a 250 percent return on investment! If two high school students can do this! Surely the rest of the Nation can too!  2.) Standardization: finding the systems that are competitive so that the convenience, efficiency, and confidence we have in disposable batteries doesn’t win. 3.) Entire life-cycle cost considerations: thinking about legacy systems in the context of the environmental implications involved in the energy systems that we employ.

The TED talk I linked at the start of this post is great example of thinking about sustainability through out the entire network or system. It is not enough to just have energy efficiency vehicles but to also have our energy using gadgets with the ability to anticipate and communicate with each other so that we are not expending energy when we are idle.

More Reading:

National Defense Magazine May 2011

Looking at Sea Salt from Space

Here is an introductory chemistry mantra: freezing point depression, boiling point elevation.

Tomorrow, NASA’s JPL will launch Aquarius, a satellite outfitted to collect sea surface salinity data. The salinity data will allow for us to gain a better understanding of the global water cycle, ocean circulation and the effects of these on our climate. Even with all of the routine ship and buoy observations, there is only salinity data for 24% of the ocean’s surface. This is a significant gap in our understanding of the ocean and the current models for ocean circulation. Recently, for World Ocean’s Day, there was a great guest blog post in Scientific American mentioning that perhaps the “Ocean Conveyor Belt”  picture for our understanding of heat flow in the ocean is an oversimplification. This concept has dominated the field of oceanography and what is exciting is that Aquarius has the potential to help researchers track processes such as precipitation, evaporation, ice melting, and river runoff that influence the global water cycle in order to develop better models.  Aquarius will provide sea salinity surface data for the entire Earth’s surface every 7 days. 

Salinity of the ocean may seem like a simple and obvious concept for many of us who have experienced the coast. But knowing salt concentrations to 0.2 g/kg (about 1 ppt) can reveal what salinity changes can disrupt ocean circulations. Drastic changes in salinity (ocean circulations) has the potential to lead to changes in the Earth’s climate. The dry regions of the ocean (more evaporation, less precipitation) are the regions of highest salinity. Creating and understadning patterns for future climate/precipitation conditions will be important for agriculture or the stability of ocean fronts for fisheries.

It is all connected. Oceanographer Josh Willis uses balloons to show how water in ... on Twitpic Pictured is an excellent demonstration done by Josh Willis at the JPLtweetup June 7, wherein he illustrates water’s ability to store heat. This ability to store heat effects the temperature of our oceans, which has a direct effect on salinity. And what happens in places with strong variations in salinity? Drastic changes in evaporation and precipitation from season-to-season. Which in turn impacts the global water cycle and ocean circulation.

Global warming is perhaps changing the way in which the ocean is adapting. And isn’t it fascinating that a simple compound like NaCl, with the help of a satellite can help us understand the connection between our climate and the ocean better?

My work here has only begun....*Edit (06/10/2011) Aquarius is about to launch (t-minus 15 min.) How exactly is Aquarius able to measure salt from space? Through microwave emissions! From an interview with Gary Lagerloef, Principle Investigator, just before the launch: Aquarius will measure the electrical conductivity (directly correlated to the salt concentration – greater the salt concentration, higher the electrical conductivity) which modulate the microwave emissions off the surface of the ocean.

**Edit (06/10/2011. 10:4o am) successful launch of Aquarius/SAC-D!

Aquarius SAC-D Launch (201106100016HQ)

Plastic is not evil

We have all seen the pictures of coastlines littered with plastics bottles and bags and we also cringe at the thought that these materials will persist for many years after they are disposed.  However, it is also not reasonable to do away with plastics completely as their inexpensive production and ease of disposal are a staple to sterile environments such as hospitals.  Yet, these fleeting applications for polymers are not appropriate for their persistence in our environment. In the last decade the chemical community has been working on the development of biodegradable polymers that can degrade through chemical hydrolysis or enzymatic processes. The applications for such polymers are when they are soiled by food or other biological substances and cannot be recycled. The benefits of these polymers are that they are generated from renewable resources and then degrade into CO2, CH4, water, biomass, and other natural substances in a short amount of time.

This bag will self desctruct in 18 months ..

Last week, a study, published in Environmental Science and Technology, carefully modeled the methane release of rapidly degrading polymers in landfills to gauge the benefits of biodegradable polymers. The researchers conclude that the polymer that they looked at (poly(3-hydroxybutyrate-co-3-hydroxyoctanoate (PHBO)) degraded and released a significant amount of methane too fast to be sufficiently captured by landfills with gas collection systems. Methane is a concern because like CO2 it is a greenhouse gas but is over 20 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere. Their suggestion therefore were to develop biodegradable polymers that degraded slower to account for the delay in the gas collection systems to reach a critical concentration of GHG emissions to operate.

There are a couple of questions concerning this conclusion, as the authors only analyzed a single biodegradable polymer. There are other more common biodegradable polymers like poly(-e-caprolactone) PCL or poly(lactic acid) (PLA). PCL, in landfill reactors, degrades at a much slower rate than PHBO. Also there have been studies that have shown that biodegradable characteristics depend on the type of polymer and degradation conditions.

Although the authors of the paper do have a good point to have manufacturers of these types of polymers to consider the environmental impact of their products even after disposal. They put it best at the conclusion of their paper, I am paraphrasing: If the emissions for producing a biodegradable material is comparable to that of producing a material from petroleum-based feedstocks, and yet the disposal emissions is higher for the biodegradable materials, is it then a viable alternative?

But also this paper is a reminder for the need to create an infrastructure for biodegradable polymer disposal. Now that worldwide consumption of these types of polymers perhaps exceeds 68 million kg, we should worry about its disposal emissions. A possibility that was not considered in the paper was to analyze composting conditions for biodegradable polymers. A recent study in Korea compared the aerobic and anaerobic environments of poly(caprolactone) and poly(butylene succinate). They concluded that pretreatment technologies coupled with composting would be a means to decrease the waste of biodegradable polymers. This is important for them as the Korean government recently encouraged substituting biodegradable polymers for non-biodegradable polymers.

In addition to considering the disposal emissions of our materials, we should consider an infrastructure for disposal of biodegradable materials that would reduce or mitigate the emissions from these materials as they are an advantage because that do not persist in our environment and are made from non-petroleum-based (renewable) feedstocks.