Stories tagged Flow of Matter and Energy


Proposed power grid for wind and solar
Proposed power grid for wind and solarCourtesy U. S. Dept. of Energy

A national energy grid - good or bad

About a year ago I wrote about our need for a national energy grid. Many politicians are moving to block the lines because they hurt their local economies or because of environmental local impacts. Others claim more local improvements would be better and less costly. Read more in Technology Review's, "A Costly and Unnecessary New Electricity Grid".

A new national grid, which has been likened to the Interstate Highway System constructed in the 1950s, has been proposed by groups such as the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank, and AEP, a large utility; elements of the plans have been included in recent federal legislation.

Last week, investor T. Boone Pickens said that he's halting his planned four-gigawatt wind farm in Texas in part because of a lack of transmission lines to carry the power from the farm to urban centers.

Learn more about the national energy "smart grid"

If you have 20 minutes or so, Center for American Progress has several complete primers on the issue:

Smart appliances save electricity and money

Last Tuesday, General Electric showed utility industry executives how their new appliances could reduce electric demand and save everyone money. Read about it in Are consumers ready for the smart grid?


It's only a squirt gun: Wait—what am I saying, "only"?
It's only a squirt gun: Wait—what am I saying, "only"?Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Gone are the heady days of the devil-may-care Raindrop Kid, and the infamous Morning Dew Gang. (Not to be confused with the morning dugong, which I believe is just an early-rising manitee-like creature.)

Yessir, the iron fisted rule of the rain barons is over, and the good people of Colorado can now legally gather rainwater.

Colorado is thirsty country, and they’ve got some serious laws regarding water rights. The folks who own flowing and standing water have wanted to make sure that no one tapped into their supply—precipitation in this case—and so it has been illegal to, say, put a bucket under your gutters and water your garden with it.

A 2007 study, however, showed that something like 97 percent of falling water in the Denver area never made it anywhere near a stream (it all either evaporated, or was quickly absorbed my plants), and so whoever owned water rights to a stream didn’t have much to complain about.

Taking this into consideration alongside the growing population of the region, and shrinking water supplies, state government decided to allow people to gather and use the water falling on their homes—so long as they have a permit. So if you’re dead set on maintaining that outlaw freedom, I suppose you could always just use a rain barrel without a permit. Yee-haw.


Have you ever seen anything more dull?: Even the toilet seems to be yawning.
Have you ever seen anything more dull?: Even the toilet seems to be yawning.Courtesy luis echanove
It’s called growing up, Peter, and everyone does it. Even you. But, on the plus side, you can legally buy cigarettes now.

Or am I just tired of life?

Well, whatever. Poop is in the news. Yawn. Again. And again.

Where others might see a barrel, and be all, “Hey, I’m not scraping the bottom of that barrel,” the cleverest capitalists and the sharpest scientists look at the situation and say, “Are you done with that barrel? And does anyone want to buy what I can scrape out of here? Even if it’s poop?” And of course it’s poop. And of course someone wants it.

Awesome I guess.

I should be more excited, shouldn’t I? I mean, someone out there is taking human waste and turning it into an environmentally-conscious coal substitute. It probably looks hilarious. But there’s only so much human waste a person can take. It’s just not exciting anymore.

So some company is squeezing the water from the brown gold of southern California, and turning it into coal-y stuff. Cement factories buy it, they burn it, they mix the ashes with their cement. At full capacity they’ll produce enough crapcoal to equal the energy out put of a 7-megawatt power station.


The fecal sciences just seem to have lost their flavor.


Rains of cats, dogs and pitchforks, however: Are so rare that we choose not to mention them.
Rains of cats, dogs and pitchforks, however: Are so rare that we choose not to mention them.Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Originally I was going to write a post today called, “Hey, kids, you’ve been lied to!” The first story was going to be this science news item. Remember how people always tell you that your fingerprints are there (on your fingers) to help you hold on to all of the slippery smooth items we humans have adapted to use? Even if you don’t remember, someone for sure told you this. Something like, “Good thing you have fingerprints, child, because you need them to hold on to that pencil of yours!” Presumably, without fingerprints we’d be walking around dropping water glasses, remote controls, fancy pens, and greased pets, until all of these things were stuck, permanently, on the ground.

It turns out that this isn’t true! You’ve been lied to, kids! It seems that some clever scientists were surprised to find lots of time on their hands. As we all well know, time is our smoothest dimension, and, if you think about it, it’s sort of amazing that we’re able to hold onto it at all. So, think these scientists, is it the itty bitty ridges on our slender fingers that have allowed us to keep so much time on our hands? And experimentation commenced.

These cleverboots devised a scientific finger grip contraption that could measure the resistance of a finger being rubbed across a smooth, glassy surface. Short story shorter, the scientists found that the area of fingerprint in contact with the glassy stuff didn’t increase grip as much as it should have. Instead, the fingertips behaved more or less like rubber, with resistance increasing proportionately with the area of flesh touching the smooth material. This means that, if anything, instead of acting as grip-enhancers, fingerprints reduce your ability to grip smooth objects, because all of those tiny ridges actually decrease the amount of finger surface area in contact with an object by as much as a third. Maybe fingerprints evolved to help us grip rough surfaces, like tree bark, or to help our skin stretch without damaging, or to allow moisture to drain more effectively from out fingertips. But they don’t help us grip all these smooth little things we like to grip so much. Lies!

And that was my first thought. Then, I came across this article on a rain of tadpoles in Japan. This is the sort of thing we don’t think much about, because it doesn’t ever really rain tadpoles, fish, or frogs, does it? Wrong! It does! If someone in your life has ever told you that it doesn’t rain animals, or implied this simply by not talking about it, you have been lied to! It rains animals all the time!

Well, maybe not all the time, because I’m pretty sure I’ve been out in the rain a few times this year, and I haven’t yet been hit in the head by an animal. (From above, anyway. I’ve been hit in the side of the head by animals several times already.) But, as weird as it sounds, lots of animals do fall from the sky from time to time. And one of those times was just now, in Nanao, Japan. Tadpoles. Everywhere. From the sky!

What if one fell in your open mouth?

Wikipedia has a list, of course, of rains of animals. Fish, frogs and toads feature prominently in the bizarre precipitation, although the occasional rain of blood (or something bloodlike), flesh, or turtles pops up now and again. And check it out: there was a rain of frogs and toads in the summer of 1901 in our own back yard, Minneapolis! Here’s a quote from the relevant news item:

“When the storm was at its highest... there appeared as if descending directly from the sky a huge green mass. Then followed a peculiar patter, unlike that of rain or hail. When the storm abated the people found, three inches deep and covering an area of more than four blocks, a collection of a most striking variety of frogs... so thick in some places [that] travel was impossible.”

Sweet, huh? Also, apparently s rain of fresh fish occurs so regularly each summer near the city of Yoro, Honduras, that they hold a festival for it every year.

What gives? Why is there an extravaganza of falling (sometimes living) meat every year, all over the place, which people lie about by not mentioning everyday because it’s awesome?

Here’s the satisfying answer: Wizards do it. Wizards and demons. Wizards, demons, wizard demons, and demon wizards gift us with rains of animals, for our amusement and theirs.

Here’s the less-satisfying answer: Because scientists don’t believe in wizards, demons, etc, the explanation here has to be related to an observed weather phenomena. The favorite is waterspouts. Waterspouts are caused by tornadoes over water, or by tornado-junior things over water. Either way, what’s happening during a waterspout is that a big thunderstorm has a rotating column of air with a strong updraft that moves over a body of water. Water gets sucked up into the air, and it’s awesome to see. What happens when a waterspout goes over a school of fish or a frog pond, scientists ask? You might get a bunch of damp and surprised animals up in the air, ready to rain down wherever the storm takes them. That the animals occasionally arrive frozen makes sense too—it can be cold up there. Rains of blood and chunks can probably be explained away by a little too much ice and action up in the clouds, or by flocks of birds caught in a violent storm. Clouds of bats have even been seen (on weather radar) being consumed by storm systems and disappearing. The hundreds or thousands of bats involved would presumably return to the earth at some point. In some form or other. Probably all guts and little pieces of bat wings, I mean.

But who would have thought, you know? I’ve never had guts or animals rain on me, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. I’ve never had red hot pyroclastic rock rain down on me either, but it happens to some people. And my parents never once sat me down and told me about the rains of fish and frogs. No doubt you have likewise missed the experience. We have been lied to, Buzzketeers!

UPDATE 6/18:
Apparently there have been multiple rains of animals in this area recently. Two small towns got tadpoles, and a third got tiny fish. There are photographs on this site. Japanese coverage of the bizarre weather mentions the waterspout theory, but meteorologists in the area point out that no waterspouts have been observed, and local weather has not been favorable to their formation anyhow. They're mystified. Witness reports of the "rain" say that, during at least one of the events, there was a strange sound outside, but no rain or wind. Neat-o.


Pure, delicious water: Drink up!
Pure, delicious water: Drink up!Courtesy viking_79
Raise a glass of cool, clear water for our girls and boys in space.

After the removal of a “sticky check valve” in the Urine Processing Assembly on Monday, astronauts on the International Space Station have finally been given a “go” to drink “recycled” water. Wondering, no doubt, what exactly made that valve so sticky, our brave orbiting scientists can now sit back and hesitantly sip tepid, musty water from pouches not entirely unlike catheter bags.

That’s how I like to imagine it, anyway. I suspect, however, that most things on the space station are pretty fancy, and that any water recycling system they’d have up there would do a pretty good job of removing the subtle flavors of urine, sweat, and exhaled moisture (all of which are processed by the system). Hopefully it chills the end product a little bit too. There’s nothing like drinking something the temperature of spit for making you feel like you’re drinking spit.

The technology has been a long time coming. The system was only installed late last year, but it has been the dream of mankind for generations that we might somehow find a way to reuse what we so wastefully flush away (“yellow gold,” we call it). Especially in space. If we ever want to take extended trips in space (and we do—even going to Mars would take months and months), water and waste recycling systems are going to be essential. These brave, thirsty astronauts are finally taking a bold step toward that wonderful future.


So this is how it gets snotty: I thought it would be more subtle.
So this is how it gets snotty: I thought it would be more subtle.Courtesy The Rapscallion
Buzzketeers—quick, for your own safety, de-cash yourself now! Come on!

There’s a flu pandemic brewing, and y’all are just sitting there, lining your pockets with little green rags that carry as much disease as monetary value. So, please, for health’s sake, empty your wallets of cash, stuff those plague bills into manila envelopes, and send them to JGordon, The Science Museum of Minnesota, The Western Hemisphere (I don’t remember the exact address here, but I’m sure the postal service can figure out the details). I’m willing to sacrifice my health—for you—and disinfect your cash money. None of that money will be returned (please, I’m not made of postage), but I’m sure that the knowledge that you have done your part to slow the pandemic is compensation enough.

(This message goes doubly for the younger, or “lil,” Buzzketeers out there. I understand that you have less money, but your immature immune systems are particularly vulnerable to viral infection. Trust me on this one, and send those piggybanks my way.)

Do you not believe me? I think I’ve proven my scientific reliability time and time again… but here, a real link to a real story: cash is a pretty good way to transmit the influenza virus.

See, according to researchers at the Central Laboratory of Virology in Switzerland, a lonely lil’ flu virus on a fresh and clean piece of paper money can only live for about an hour. Unfortunately, viruses are rarely lonely, and our cash money is not very clean. So the researchers observed how long a virus could live on cash when it was mixed with a little nasal mucus (we’ll call it “snot”).

Under a cozy little film of mucus, the flu viruses were much hardier. Some strains of influenza lived as long as 17 days on the bill. And while the scientists didn’t test the exact strain of swine flu that we’re dealing with now, they did see how long other varieties of the H1N1 virus would last. H1N1 influenza remained viable (it could still infect someone) on the cash for up to 10 days.

It turns out that about 94 percent of dollar bills may carry pathogens (germs, viruses, etc). So let me shoulder this burden of worry, and let’s see that cash.

On to part 2 of this post…

Researchers at Northwestern University and Indiana University are also using money to study the spread of disease, but in a totally different way. It’s a little more complicated, and a little cooler.

Even if cash is totally clean, and doesn’t act as a vector for passing the flu, a cash transaction represents a face-to-face exchange between multiple people, the sort of encounter that could result in the flu virus being passed on.

And, hey, look: a project designed to follow the journey of individual dollar bills across the country.

The Northwestern and Indiana scientists took data from this bill-tracing project (called Where’s George?, and combined it with information on air traffic and commuter traffic patterns for the country to make a mathematical model of how people move and interact in the US. They then added information about the H1N1 swine flu into the system—the locations of confirmed cases, rates of infection, the time it takes to become contagious… that sort of thing. With all the variables taken into consideration, the model becomes incredibly complex—so complex that it takes a supercomputer about ten hours to make all the calculations, and come up with a forecast of where future infections will be, and how many of them we might expect.

But the model seems to work. Both universities, working independently, came up with strikingly similar models, and when predictions from the models were compared to real-life figures they matched up pretty well.

So far the models’ estimates have been slightly lower than actual infections, but they predict that there will be about 2,000 cases of the swine flu in the United States by the end of May, with most of those occurring in New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Houston. The researchers didn’t run any predictions beyond about a month, however. The flu, they say, as well as public response to it, are so unpredictable that using the models to look too far ahead doesn’t work. (The flu could mutate into something more virulent, or the government could do something drastic to control its spread, or, you know, we could get invaded by space aliens.)

(Liza, by the way, talked about these models a little last week.)

How about that? Money follows us around, viruses follow us around, viruses follow money around, and we trade all of it.

Here’s the link to Northwestern’s flu model

Here’s the link to Indiana’s model.


Almost everything we'll need, right here: Almost.
Almost everything we'll need, right here: Almost.Courtesy Stefan Thlesen
BTW, Buzzketeers, if I ever catch you using the term “the john” when talking about a toilet, I will erase you from the story of my life. Sure, I just used it, but think I have the right to take possession of that word to divest it of its hurtfulness. Sort of like how ugly people are allowed to call stuff “fugly.”

Anyway, let’s consider the future of energy. We all know that we have to start conserving fossil fuels, so that we can use them with abandon in a dune buggy-filled Mad Max style future. (I like to think of this as “saving it for the party.”) In the mean time, we have to get clever. This week I noticed a couple of stories about people thinking outside the box with regards to energy. In one case, they’re thinking above the box, in the other they’re thinking below the box. (Or maybe they’re thinking in the box. It depends on what you use your boxes for.)

Check it out: a company called Solaren Corp has convinced the largest energy utility in California to purchase 200 megawatts of solar power from them by around 2016. The way they propose getting that power is the interesting thing—they plan on getting it from space.

Wait… that was poorly phrased. All solar power comes from space. What Solaren intends to do is launch a massive array of mirrors (as large as several miles across) into orbit to collect and reflect sunlight onto photoelectric cells. The cells will convert the sunlight into electric power, which will then be converted into radio waves and blasted down to a receiver on Earth. The radio energy will then be turned back into electricity. Solaren claims that the system could eventually generate 1.2 to 4.8 gigawatts of power at a price comparable to that of other alternative energy sources, enough to power 250,000 homes in California. And unlike land-based solar panels, the flow of energy wouldn’t depend on weather, and the orbit would be high enough that the system could provide energy 24 ours a day. They intend to launch it up to about 22,000 miles above the surface of the planet, meaning that it would be just inside of a high Earth orbit, and therefore geosynchronous. (I think.) Pretty neat, huh?

However, getting a couple miles of mirrors up to 22,000 miles above Earth is a little tricky. A little tricky, and super expensive. Building the receiving systems isn’t going to be cheap either. Some folks think that the project is altogether… unlikely. But the California power utility isn’t actually making an investment (i.e., taking a risk) they just promised to buy the power when it’s there (or if). But that commitment is probably comforting for investors.

Solaren says that the radio waves being sent back to Earth will be one sixth the intensity of sunlight. But what kind of radio waves are we talking about here? Visible light is composed of radio waves. So are radio, um, radio waves. Nope, we’re talking about microwaves. Microwaves have the advantage of being pretty high-energy. They have the disadvantage of being a little scary to me. And to other people. But it seems like it’s not all that dangerous; the center of the microwave beam would have an intensity of about 23 milliwatts per square centimeter. The limit for workplace exposure to microwaves in the US is 10 mw/cm2, so obviously 23 mw/cm2 is beyond what the government considers safe, but the area of maximum intensity is relatively small. Near the outside of the receiving array, the intensity would be closer to 1 mw/cm2. Birds flying through the center of the beam could have some trouble, and small aircraft and hot air balloons would do well to avoid it, but the metal shell of conventional planes should protect passengers entirely (the same way that your metal microwave protects you from the forces cooking your food). I suppose a super-villain could always hack into the satellite controls, and re-aim the system at a neighborhood. But that’s assuming that it ever gets built.

So from pie in the sky (a huge mirror pie), let’s turn our attention to fudge underground. It doesn’t have quite the sunshiny appeal of space mirrors, but it’s a little more feasible at the moment.

Remember how, in Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome, Master Blaster was harvesting methane fuel from pig feces? Well, that works in the real world too, and not just with pig feces.

Consider the following: if you were to safe all of your… solid waste for one year, you could produce an amount of fuel equivalent to about 2.1 gallons of diesel fuel. I know—it doesn’t seem as much a it should, right? But if a city of 250,000 people was converting its waste into fuel, they’d have enough to drive 80 buses 62,000 miles each. If that figure sounds oddly specific, it’s only because that’s what Oslo, Norway intends to do. The city is all set to fuel its public transportation with brown gold. (Or with the biomethane produced by it.)

The cost of producing an amount of biomethane equivalent to a liter of diesel fuel comes to about 98 cents, while a liter of diesel costs about $1.30 at the pumps in Norway. And, unlike some other biofuels we won’t mention, it only gets into your food supply after you’ve eaten it.

Because the fuel comes from recently grown organic materials, it’s supposed to be carbon neutral, which is good. The article doesn’t say how energy intensive the process of making it is, though. Also, methane itself is a pretty bad greenhouse gas, but I suppose if it’s all burned efficiently that shouldn’t be a problem. (Burned methane makes CO2 and water.)

Energy may be plentiful in the future. We’ll just have to watch where we step.


The peak of civilization: The haze you see is good ideas, just floating around.
The peak of civilization: The haze you see is good ideas, just floating around.Courtesy Jose P Isern Comas
Ahoy, Buzzketeers. I’m a-travelling, far across the ocean. I’m not sure which ocean (I fell asleep on the plane), but things are very different here, and I’ll keep you updated with any science I come across as I have the time.

Anyway, the last place I remember being in was Los Angeles. (And even that was pretty hazy.) I saw lots of strange things, including several awesome cyborgs. (Although… if I were to become a cyborg, I think I’d have to go with laser eyes or robot arms. Do bags of silicone give you mega-strength, or something?) I heard some strange things too, including the following exchange between a father and his two tiny children:

“We can go to McDonalds?”
“If your mother said it was OK… yeah!”
“But remember… you have to finish your protein before you eat your fries.”

The dad had clearly done some exceptional fathering, according to the look on his face… but what? Were they speaking in some sort of code? Is there a tonal component to west coast language that Midwesterners can’t recognize?

I typed the whole thing into Google, and it came back with a bunch of words like “low-carb,” and “atkins.”

So what’s happening here? When L.A. dad said “protein,” he was probably referring to meat specifically—meat is mostly fat and protein. The fries waiting in the little girls’ future, on the other hand, are high in carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are things like sugar and starch (and starch, kids, if you look at it on the molecular level, is pretty much just a long chain of sugar molecules.) Carbohydrates can be quickly turned into energy in the body, but if you aren’t being very active, they can be stored in your body as fat.

Way back in the way back, before French fries and cake were invented, people were mostly hunter-gatherers, and what they hunted and gathered probably would have been high in protein and fat, and low in the sort of carbohydrates our bodies can digest. So some folks think, with good reason, that our bodies are adapted to function best on that sort of diet.

Also, when we eat sugars, our pancreases have to produce the hormones insulin and glucagon to regulate the amount of sugar in our blood, because having too much blood sugar is toxic, and having too little blood sugar essentially starves our cells. In this time of cake and French fries, though, we eat lots of sugar, and our bodies produce lots of insulin, and our poor little pancreases can’t keep up, and they freak out and get sick and can’t produce those hormones in the right amounts any more—we call that diabetes. So regulating sugars before they enter the body is a good idea.

A good idea! Thanks, dad!

But, wait… what else? It turns out that little kids (or, as I call them, lil’ kids) are often pretty active in the first place, and can probably deal with carbohydrates pretty well. They might get hyper, but those carbs may not ever be turned into fat. Also, when there isn’t enough sugar in one’s diet, the body produces chemicals called ketones, which cause fat to be turned back into carbohydrates. That’s cool if you want to loose weight, but if you’re a lil’ kid, and not a fat lil’ kid, ketosis just makes your body think it’s starving and your lil’ brain is robbed of sugars, making you feel… kind of dull. (So say some scientists, anyway.)

Also, let’s consider dad’s specific protein: we don’t know exactly what the kid were going to order, but let’s go with the McDonald’s standby, the Big Mac hamburger. See, while dad was advocating good, old fashioned (Paleolithic), hunter-gatherer values, the high fat and protein items hunted and gathered back then rarely, if ever, included Big Macs. A Big Mac has almost half of the fat an adult should eat in a day (29 grams, so about 45% of the daily value), and a kid is going to have even lower nutritional requirements than an adult. And a lot of that fat is what is called “trans fat.” There are different kinds of fat, and trans fat (trans fatty acids, partially hydrogenated whatevers, etc) are probably one of the fats that you don’t want to have too much of. I won’t get into it, but trans fats really aren’t that great for you.

Also, a Big Mac has 45 grams of carbohydrates. You’d get the same amount of carbohydrates from eating a Snickers bar and a “fun size” Snickers bar together.

So it looks like those lil’ kids aren’t going to be deprived of carbs after all. Thanks for thinking it all out, dad!

Holy smokes! Are we learning or what? Anyway, LAX was awesome.


Somebody has been wearing green pants...: I think it's looking at me.
Somebody has been wearing green pants...: I think it's looking at me.Courtesy freebeet
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, everyone, but it’s time y’all know the ending to the movie, as it were.

You know what I’m talking about: the secrets of belly button lint have been revealed. The code is cracked. The mystery is solved.

So put away your magnifying glasses and mirrors. Close your holy books, and silence your prayers for enlightenment. Power down the electron microscopes, and box up the spectrum analyzer. Pick out the clothes you want to be buried in.

Because someone has beaten you to the punch.

There’s an Austrian behind this bleak news (as usual), a chemist named Georg Steinhauser. In an article in the journal Medical Hypotheses, Steinhauser describes the formation mechanisms and chemical composition of navel fluff, based on samples from his friends and colleagues, as well as over 500 pieces of lint collected from his own gut pit (that’s what cool kids are calling belly buttons these days).

The microscopic structure of human hair—overlapping scales that point towards the end of the hair—serves to abrade clothing fabric (it rubs tiny fibers off the cloth), as well as to direct thee lint towards the navel, as hair on the stomach “often seems to grow in concentric circles around the navel.”

Chemical analysis, however, revealed that while cotton fibers make up most of the content of navel fluff, flecks of skin, dust, dried sweat, and fat are also present in noticeable quantities.

Shaving one’s belly should significantly reduce the accumulation of fluff, but only, the doctor points out, until the hair grows back. Yes, that makes sense.

Also, belly button piercings can aid the prevention of fluff. Rings tend to sweep away fibers before they can lodge in the navel.

Wearing older clothing can likewise reduce lint. New cloth sheds more fibers—up to one thousandth of a shirt’s weight can be lost to belly button lint each year. If my calculations are correct, that means that your navel could consume an entire shirt in one thousand years.

It’s valuable research, of course, and it adds a “why” to the “who” and “um… what?” to our understanding of the navel ecosystem. (The bulk of what we already knew came from an Australian study of over 5,000 people, which determined that the typical carrier of navel lint is a “slightly overweight middle-aged male with a hairy abdomen,” and that the reason the lint is generally blue or grey is because… we usually wear blue or grey pants.)

Are your minds blown?

Well, you can continue on with your lives now, as pointless as they may seem at the moment.