Stories tagged environment

This page lists stories about the environment, energy, climate change, and global warming from Science Buzz, a website devoted to science in the news, emerging research, and seasonal phenomena.

Jun
19
2008

It's an important job I've got for you...: That's right: pump my gas. I'm not getting out of the car.
It's an important job I've got for you...: That's right: pump my gas. I'm not getting out of the car.Courtesy thefiveten77
Using microorganisms to do our dirty work is all the rage these days. And, you know, they deserve it—they’ve spent so much time making us sick that they’re due for a little bit of productive action (and don’t bring up gut microbes, water treatment, or natural decomposition. I’m just not interested in anything that contradicts me).

It’s encouraging, then, to see that scientists in California have genetically engineered microorganisms (like yeast and strains of e. coli that eat organic garbage and poop crude oil. Is “poop” the right verb? It is? It’s exactly the right verb? Oh, good.

Currently the process requires a lot of equipment for a pretty small output. A room-sized computer and fermenting machine produces about a barrel of oil a week—America consumes about 143 million barrels of oil each week. And, at the moment, the process isn’t super cheap.

However, the scientists involved are hopeful that the necessary equipment can be shrunk, and the product can be produced more efficiently. With a commercial-scale facility (planned construction in 2011), using Brazilian sugarcane as feedstock (not the best crop, but that’s another post), oil could be produced at a cost of about $50 a barrel. Not bad, compared to the current price of oil hovering around $140 a barrel.

The process should be carbon neutral or negative too. That is to say, the CO2 produced by burning the fuel produced should be less than that pulled from the air by the feedstock materials.

It’s all very interesting, but I’m afraid that this sort of technology is forcing biotechnology away from its true purpose—microorganisms working for us in the very literal sense. The day e. coli wanders out into my yard and mows my lawn is the day I’ll get excited. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Jun
19
2008

Billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens is building the world’s largest wind farm in Texas, hoping to produce enough energy to light 1.3 million homes.

If you ever wanted to live like a billionaire, now's your chance – technological advance are making home wind power much more common and affordable.

How do you power your home when the wind isn’t blowing? Through compressed air energy storage. The process is complicated and inefficient, but power companies are working on ways to improve it.

Jun
09
2008

Free CFL recycling

Free CFL recyling @ Menards
Free CFL recyling @ MenardsCourtesy Minnesota Energy Challenge
Those compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL) should keep saving you money on your electric bills for many years. When they do burn out your need to safely recycle them. I burned one out in just one day because I had a dimmer switch.

Starting today I can recycle my CFL bulbs for free at any Menards store in Minnesota thanks to The Center for Energy and Environment and Great River Energy.

Jun
03
2008

A great American: taking an energy efficient, zero water bath.
A great American: taking an energy efficient, zero water bath.Courtesy mikekanyo
The Japanese government is encouraging its citizens to strike a grimy blow to the forces of overconsumption.

In an official report sparkling with figures and spinning with good intent, the government recommended that people take speedier showers, and not screw around in between baths.

“We’re savin’ water this way, see? And we don’t got to heat up as much, see? That saves energy, kid,” said Prime Minister Fukuda of the recommendation. “Now scram—ya bother me,” he added.

Still below the average American and European consumption levels, energy use per capita in Japan has increased by 44 percent over the last fifteen years or so. An, unlike America and Europe, where household energy use is primarily for heating and air-conditioning, the bulk of Japanese household energy use is applied to heating water for kitchens and bathrooms.

Shorter showers is an old trick, but traditional Japanese bath time customs leave some room for improvement—bathing is often done outside the tub, and followed by a soak in the hot water. Family members then will reuse the water when it’s their turn. Baths in quicker succession would require less reheating of the water, thereby saving energy.

“So simple a baby could have come up with it,” says Fukuda. “It’s genius, I tell ya!”

It’s a thought-provoking plan, certainly. I don’t recommend that Americans adopt it, however. No, while we could all stand to use a little less energy, who wants to constantly play catch up to another country? Not us. I say, then, that we stop bathing altogether! Let’s see another country try to beat that.

Sidenote—Does Pigpen have fleas? Or are those just dirt particles?

May
29
2008

The law of unintended consequences, part 4,937: Fuel cells don't pollute. But the process of making the fuel that goes in to them does.
The law of unintended consequences, part 4,937: Fuel cells don't pollute. But the process of making the fuel that goes in to them does.Courtesy geognerd

Fuel cells are sometimes promoted as a clean energy alternative. They work by combining hydrogen and oxygen to create water, with some left over energy that can then be turned into electricity. The only waste products from a fuel cell are water and heat.

Two small problems:

  • Water vapor, it turns out, is a major greenhouse gas.
  • Getting hydrogen to go into the fuel cell requires either zapping water with electricity, or treating natural gas with steam. Both of these processes require power, which currently comes from—burning coal.

So, while the fuel cell doesn’t pollute, the process of making the fuel for it does. (Though that could change if a hydrogen plant could be designed to run on wind, solar or other clean energy.)

May
25
2008

The law of unintended consequences: Making ethanol to reduce carbon in the atmosphere is playing havoc with food prices.
The law of unintended consequences: Making ethanol to reduce carbon in the atmosphere is playing havoc with food prices.Courtesy swankslot

Well, probably neither. But ethanol – a type of fuel made from plants – has been causing a lot of controversy lately. We’ve talked about this here before.

Many people like ethanol. As the price of gasoline rises, ethanol becomes an economical alternative. We can grow it at home, and not have to buy it from foreign countries who may or may not be our friends. And using it as fuel does not add any extra carbon into the atmosphere.

The problem is, most ethanol today is made from food crops, like corn. The more food we turn into ethanol, the less there is to eat. This puts pressure on food prices, as do droughts and growing populations. Food riots have broken out in several countries, and some people are beginning to rethink the push toward ethanol.

(A rather more bleak assessment of the same phenomenon.)

However, not everybody sees this as gloom-and-doom. Here's a spirited defense of biofuels.

Dennis Avery, Director of the Center for Global Food Issues, argues that the push for ethanol is hurting the movement toward sustainable farming.

However, blogger Austin Bay argues that, while rising demand for ethanol is a factor in food prices, it is far from the only one, or even the most important.

A scientific convention right here in Minneapolis agrees, noting that the problem isn’t biofuel per se, but the use of food crops to make biofuel. If we used non-food crops, we would relieve some pressure on food prices. Furthermore, non-food crops like native prairie grass actually make better ethanol than corn does!

Ronald Bailey, science correspondent for Reason magazine, notes the effect of ethanol on food prices, and makes some suggestions for reversing the trend.

Scientists in Tennessee are working on just that, using switchgrass to make ethanol. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Massachusetts are making progress towards turning switchgrass straight into “green gasoline” – a substance chemically identical to gasoline (unlike ethanol, which has some important differences.)

(We’ve discussed switchgrass on Science Buzz before.)

Researchers in Texas are working to make ethanol from sweet sorghum. This would reduce the need to use corn, but sorghum is used in syrup and other sweeteners, so it really wouldn’t solve the food-into-fuel problem.

May
13
2008

You'd be blue, too: Compact fluorescent light bulbs save energy, but come with a number of problems.
You'd be blue, too: Compact fluorescent light bulbs save energy, but come with a number of problems.Courtesy Tiago Daniel

We’ve written before about compact fluorescent light bulbs – a new type of bulb you can buy for your home that uses a lot less electricity than standard bulbs, and thus reduces pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. But are they all they’re cracked up to be?

Some environmental groups warn that the bulbs contain mercury, which can be toxic and difficult to clean up in the event of a broken bulb.

Researchers in England claim the bulbs can trigger migraines, epilepsy and lupus.

And a review panel assembled by the New York Times concluded that most CFL bulbs do not give off attractive light.

Though a step in the right direction, clearly there are still some bugs to work out of the bulbs.

May
12
2008

Mmmm...that's good eatin': It takes less energy to harvest seafood, including whale, than to raise animals on a farm.
Mmmm...that's good eatin': It takes less energy to harvest seafood, including whale, than to raise animals on a farm.Courtesy Sparky Leigh

The Norwegian whaling lobby has released a study, comparing how much energy is required to produce a pound of whale meat vs. a pound of beef, chicken, or other livestock. The results: one pound of chicken produces 2.4 times as much greenhouse gas as one pound of whale meat; pork produces 3.4 times as much; and beef 8.3 times as much.

Greenpeace quickly pointed out that this has nothing to do with whales themselves; all farm-raised meat requires a lot of energy. Catching fish and other seafood produce similar amounts of gas. Many whale species are threatened or endangered, and protected by international treaties. Nations that do a lot of whaling object to these restrictions.