By Harry {doc} Babad, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved. 


The materials I share in the articles that follow come from the various weekly science and environmental newsletters, both pro or anti any given subject’s focus or technologies, as well as blogs to which I subscribe.

Article selection (my article – my choice} are obviously and admittedly biased by my training, experience and at rare times my emotional and philosophical intuitive views of what works and what will not… But if you have a topic I neglect, send me feedback and I’ll give it a shot.

Since my topic segments are only a partial look at the original article, click on through the provided link if you want more details, as well as <often> other background references on the topic(s).       Doc.

Titles, As Usual, in No Formal Order, The New Snippets

  • Turning Tough Trash Into Food-Friendly Fuel
  • Fool’s Gold Catches Eye Of Solar Energy Researchers
  • Economies Of Scale: The Cost Of Nuclear New Build In America — It not the cost of the first one that ultimately counts.
  • Potholes On The Road To Renewable Fuels — Corn-kernel-based ethanol hits the fast lane, but cellulosic ethanol is still mostly stuck in first gear
  • Strip Search: How Safe are Airports’ New X-ray Scanners?
  • “Cheap energy”: Could natural gas be stepping on the renewable sector’s toes?

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Turning Tough Trash Into Food-Friendly Fuel

Researchers are making steps toward producing biofuels from the abundant plant materials we don’t eat.

In her search for a better way to put fuel in your tank, biological engineer Ratna Sharma-Shivappa is working on a chemical juggling act: She is trying to break down the problematic woody material in grasses without harming the energy-containing carbohydrates that the plants also contain. If she can perfect the process, it could lead to inexpensive biofuels that are made from inedible crops—not from corn like most of today’s ethanol.

If scalable this would likely eliminate or drastically reduce the difficult and highly politically driven choice of using based corn based ethanol for fuel, rather then feeding the worlds hungry. Once again Americas factory farm supported farm lobbies, has convinced the DOE and EPA to increase the allowable ethanol in our gasoline to 15%, engine corrosion problems not withstanding. This time against will of the automotive industry. There’s also the now demonstrated fact that corn based ethanol is, based on life cycle carbon releases, a negative pollution control force  – Growing corn releases more greenhouse gases than adding ethanol to fuel saves. Indeed the effect of switching to more corn ethanol in fuel does little except to line the pockets of ‘big’ agriculture and funding farm state politicians.

By exposing ground-up miscanthus grass (a relative of sugarcane) to ozone gas, Sharma-Shivappa and her colleagues at North Carolina State University were able to break down the tough structural molecule called lignin, allowing them to access the valuable carbohydrates without degrading them. Enzymes then split the carbs into sugars, which are fermented to make ethanol. Although ozone is pricey, the technique works at room temperature and does not require high pressure; advantages that Sharma-Shivappa believes will help keep it cost-effective. Next she will test the ozone treatment on other potential biofuel plants. “This should be applicable to most lignin crops,” such as switch grass, she says. There’s a bit more about alternatives to ozonization, in the linked article.

Doc Sez, that this is broader than just miscanthus grass, since it might also be applicable to the Brazilian sugar cane residues (biomass), as an alterative to the caustic treatment and or possible enzymatic processing now under study.

Article by Valerie Ross, Discover Magazine, December 2010 issue

Added Reading

Fermenting Cane Biomass to Fuel in Brazil

Ethanol Production Via Enzymatic Hydrolysis Of Sugar-Cane Bagasse And Straw In Brazil

Cellulosic Ethanol – Wikipedia, 2011

Is Ethanol Really More Eco-Friendly Than Gas?

Ethanol, Schmethanol, The Economist, September 2007

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Fool’s Gold Catches Eye Of Solar Energy Researchers


  • There are several issues related to the technology on which solar energy is based but in one word they relate to competitive and unsubsidized cost. Three examples
    Cost of the semiconductors used to make solar cells
  • Cost of solar energy compared to that from natural gas, nuclear of course coal
  • Finding low cost storage to allow solar energy to meet our industrial and urban base load requirements.

An improvement in any of these areas gets us closer to use of the sun to generate electricity on a real world competitive basis. Yes readers, I do understand that some of the competition becomes more fair to Solar should the governments of this world adopt either a carbon tax or better yet change the focus of bested interests as discussed in a recent article in the January 2011 Economist.  Another alternative being talked about is Lowering Income Taxes While Raising Pollution Taxes Reaps Great Returns published in the sustainability blog, in April 2010.

Iron pyrite – also known as fool’s gold – may be worthless to treasure hunters, but it could become a bonanza to the solar industry. The mineral, among the most abundant in the earth’s crust, is usually discarded by coal miners or sold as nuggets in novelty stores.

But researchers at the University of California-Irvine said they could soon turn fool’s gold into a cheaper alternative to the rare and expensive materials now used in making solar panels. “With alternative energy and climate-change issues, we’re always in a race against time,” said lead researcher Matt Law. “With some insight and a little bit of luck, we could find a good solution with something that’s now disposed of as useless garbage.”

The UC-Irvine team believes the mineral can be processed into a thin film for use in photovoltaic cells, and could eventually convert sunlight into electricity at roughly the same rate as existing technology. Though it’s too early to estimate the cost of cells made with pyrite, Law said they’re likely to be cheaper because fool’s gold is so readily available. A prototype could be ready within the year, but it could be at least three years before the cells are commercially available. Some industry analysts, however, are skeptical that the team – which includes a chemist, a mathematician and a physicist – can hit pay dirt. There’s more… some of it negative by folks with a vested interest in the existing technology.

PhysOrg.Com Blog, January 21st, 2011 (c) 2011, Los Angeles Times

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Economies Of Scale: The Cost Of Nuclear New Build In America

— It not the cost of the first one that ultimately counts.

Article by Jack Craze, Nuclear Energy Insider, November 2010

The cost of nuclear new build is a source of major contention in the US. President Obama’s administration has proposed tripling the size of the loan guarantee program to $56 billion. Industry figures say this is not nearly enough to kick-start the nuclear renaissance, while the general public remains fiercely opposed to anything resembling another federal subsidy package.

The costs of building a nuclear reactor are, in many people’s minds, prohibitively high. In America, a lot of people remember the hundreds of billions of dollars ‘squandered’ on nuclear energy in the 1980s. Others point to the recent price escalation (to around $10 billion) for the Olkiluoto 3 reactor in Finland. And while a record-high 74% of Americans say they support the development of nuclear energy in the US, the upfront costs of construction remain a problem, particularly in the (potential) middle of a recession.

Westinghouse, one of America’s leading commercial nuclear companies, puts the installation costs of one of its 960-megawatt (MW) reactors at $7 billion. This compares to $2.5 billion for a 750 MW coal plant, and $3 billion for a 600 MW hydro plant. “What we have to remember”, observes Dr. Jim Conca, Senior Scientist at the Institute for Energy and the Environment at New Mexico State University, “Is that as you build more reactors, or anything at an engineering scale, the cost comes down. “For example, the South Koreans’ sixth nuclear reactor cost about 40% less than their first. And in China, they’re building nuclear reactors at about $3 billion a unit.

Doc Sez: Look at the projections for the production costs for the new Nissan Leaf. At the initial low production levels the MSRP is $32780, offset by major federal and state subsidies to perhaps as low as $25,280 in some states. In a recent interview Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn noted that he expects to be price competitive without government subsidies when annual Leaf production hits 500,000 units per year (which is down from a previous forecast of 1 million). And that’s without a major break though in battery costs.

True, the Chinese, for now, have low-cost labor which accounts for some of that lower cost, but it does show you that the $7 billion Westinghouse price-tag is a very conservative estimate.”

The article goes on to discuss the role of Federal Loan Guarantees to kick stat initial reactor construction, minor indirect support (e.g., a loan guarantee is not a grant) compared to France, Germany, Korea and Japan who are serious about nuclear energy. It concludes with an overview of trends in Construction, commodities and long-term costs. It makes a good read, check it out.

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Potholes On The Road To Renewable Fuels

— Corn-kernel-based ethanol hits the fast lane, but cellulosic ethanol is still mostly stuck in first gear

Article by Jeff Johnson, September 13, 2010, Chemical and Engineering News

Four years ago, speaking to 1,300 ethanol supporters in the heart of the Corn Belt, then-president George W. Bush gave a rousing speech singing the praises of biofuels, particularly corn-kernel-based ethanol. His speech on the eve of the 2006 congressional elections was music to the ears of the crowd attending the government-organized St. Louis conference, aptly titled “Advancing Renewable Energy: An American Rural Renaissance.”

The president outlined his plan to offer tax credits, subsidies, and federal research support to fuel a drive for ethanol that would move the nation “beyond a petroleum-based economy and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past.” He added that cellulosic ethanol made from nonfood sources, waste, and energy crops was“ right around the corner” and would be “practical and competitive within six years.”

Bush’s support for ethanol and his mix of energy, economic, and electoral policies have been continued by President Barack Obama, particularly the push for fuels made from cellulosic feedstocks. Obama’s Departments of Energy and Agriculture have offered billions of dollars to support cellulosic ethanol R&D and bio refinery construction. But despite the money and talk, no commercial cellulosic ethanol biorefinery is operating in the USA today, and the most optimistic cellulosic ethanol boosters acknowledge that commercial-scale production could be years away.

I wonder what the Brazilian’s and apparently the Chinese are doing right?

Meanwhile, in the US, they clamor for additional federal support.

Where have I heard this song before?

The article make good reading, and the folks at the American Chemical Society’s magazine [C&EN} do a credible job of getting their facts straight.

I found the discussion of diverting food, a major international, but not US food staple, of particular concern.

The continued competition between corn for food and corn for fuel worries food and agricultural experts. Cellulosic ethanol was supposed to ease the demand for corn as fuel, but instead, reliance on corn as a gasoline additive has become secure, and now the price of corn is “hooked” to the volatile price of oil, according to Craig Cox, Midwest vice president of Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit research organization. Cox, a former USDA official and congressional staff member, believes that when oil prices rise, they will drive up the price of corn ethanol and consequently the price of corn—with a ripple effect on the cost of grains throughout the world.

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Strip Search: How Safe are Airports’ New X-ray Scanners?

By Alice Park, Time Magazine, October 9, 2010.

Let me start this article by saying tomorrow (February 26th I am flying to Phoenix and expect at lease once on my trip to pass through a set of new scanners. Compared to all the other radiation exposures in my life this risk is a no-brainer. What you ask?

I did part of my undergraduate research near a incompletely shielded cobalt 60 source

  • I lived in Denver for about six year,
  • I was a frequent coast-to-coast flyer in the 1980’s,
  • I had 7-Grey of X-ray radiation treatment for a neck cancer,
  • I live with lousy teeth and so am X-rayed more often than most folks
  • And …have had more than my share of CAT scans.

The only place I didn’t get more than a background radiation dose was working at the US DOE Hanford Nuclear Site for ca. 25 years. Okay, no the article details.

Don’t be surprised if on your next trip to the airport, security personnel tell you to stop and put your arms up. No, you’re not being arrested. You’re being X-rayed from head to toe–or, more accurately, from toe to head.

The latest generation of airport scanners is designed to detect nonmetal weapons such as ceramic knives and explosive devices that can slip past magnetometers. The new machines–135 of them are already in operation, and nearly 1,000 are expected to be in place by the end of 2011–rely on low-intensity radiation that is absorbed a few millimeters into your skin and then reflected back, creating a reasonably accurate contour image of your body and anything else underneath your clothes. When the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) began rolling out the so-called backscatter machines in March, the agency, along with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, assured the public that the radiation dose from a scan was negligible–far lower not only than the amount in a chest X-ray but also than the levels passengers absorb from cosmic rays on a cross-country flight.

The backscatter numbers, however, seemed too good to be true to several scientists, including John Sedat, a biophysics professor at the University of California, San Francisco. After studying the degree of detail obtained in the seconds-long scans, the scientists wondered how the radiation exposure could be so low. The answer, they concluded, lay in how the manufacturer and government officials measured the dose: by averaging the exposure from the beam over the volume of the entire body. This is how scientists measure exposure from medical X-rays, which are designed to zap straight through bone and tissue. But backscatter beams skim the body’s surface. Sedat and his colleagues maintain that if the dose were based only on skin exposure, the result would be 10 to 20 times the manufacturer’s calculations.

That’s a huge difference, but the higher amount, TSA and FDA officials maintain, still falls within the limits of safe radiation exposure. Based on measurements conducted by the FDA as well as by technicians at Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere, says the FDA’s Daniel Kassiday, “We are confident that full-body-X-ray security products and practices do not pose a significant risk to the public health.”

Check this out, there’s both a difference of opinion on the use of one type of scanning, one that uses background scatter methods, and other devices being implemented, but the bottom like is the risks to an individual are low. – What these concerned scientists worry about is population dose to the 8,000,000 people worldwide including children who fly each year.  I agree that more studies are needed but unless they in addition to ‘absolute’ risk relate the added risks of malignancy to those from other sources of pollution, this will become another brainless media fest. Meanwhile my grandson who works for the TSA says that at least in Seattle, folks have made very little fuss about the scanners… and after all good news make very poor headlines.

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“Cheap energy”: Could natural gas be stepping on the renewable sector’s toes?

By Heba Hashem, Middle East Correspondent Nuclear Energy Insider, 6 December 2010,

Liquefied gas capacity will shoot up 47% by the end of 2013, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), which will threaten investments in the renewables sector.

Although prices of renewable energy are coming down with technology advances, the intermittent nature of the energy production from renewable sources is making natural gas more appealing and investment worthy to companies.

Last month, Qatar’s energy minister said that natural gas would become more desirable than other energy sources, including renewables, which are environmentally promising but remain too expensive.

Wind speed is ideal for operating turbines at the height of around 800 meets, but building a tower that high isn’t feasible. Still, wind energy has a zero marginal cost, and thus can be profitable in the right environment.

Today’s recession dictating future decisions — According to Dr. Ray Perryman, a US- based economist and president of the Perryman Group:  “Wholesale and to some extent retail markets for electricity are becoming less regulated and more competitive over time. When prices rise, the emphasis will shift to renewables”.

“This ebb and flow is the nature of markets, but sophisticated companies are now investing billions of dollars in renewable transmission infrastructure, and new wind and solar manufacturing plants continue to expand”.

Because emerging countries have an accelerating demand for energy, there is going to be high demand for all sources (traditional and renewables). “The recession has interrupted this pattern temporarily, but not fundamentally”.

The golden age of gas may lead to cheaper gas prices for consumers, but it will also result in a rush to build gas-fired power plants at the expense of much cleaner forms of electricity generation. The IEA estimates that 35% of the increase in global gas production to 2035 will come from such unconventional projects.

Moreover, oil giants like Shell and Exxon-Mobil are shifting their business focus and repositioning themselves as gas producers, which Shell is marketing as a cleaner, yet still a CO2 producing, form of energy.

The article continues with an excellent discussion of Shale Gas and the US Market and ends up with a usual question associated with competing energy sources in a changing regulatory environment — Natural gas has crucial role to play, but for how long?

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Copyright Notice: Product and company names and logos in this review may be registered trademarks of their respective companies.

Some of the articles listed in this column are copyright protected – their use is both acknowledge and is limited to educational related purposes, which this column provides.

Sources & Credits: — Many of these items were found by way of the links in the newsletter NewsBridge of ‘articles of interest’ to the national labs library technical and regulatory agency users. NewsBridge is electronically published by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, in Richland WA.  If using NewsBridge as a starting point, I follow the provided link to the source of the information and edit its content (mostly by shortening the details) for information for our readers. I also both follow any contained links, where appropriate, in the actual article, and provide you those references as well as those gleaned from a short trip to Google-land. Obviously if my source is a magazine or blog that the material I work with.

In addition, when duplicating materials that I cite, I do not fill the source words with quotation makes, the only place I keep quotes intact is where the original article ‘quotes’ another source external to itself.  Remember, when Doc sticks his two bits in, its in italics and usually indented.

In Closing

I’ll be posting articles for your comfort and anger in the next few months. I never respond to flaming, but will take time to provide evidence in the form of both primary technical and secondary {magazine articles} references for those who ask. However, most of you can reach out and Google such information for your selves.

Readers Please NoteRead about my paradigms views, prejudices and snarky attitudes at:

Furthermore, many of the technologies I share still have to prove that they are reliable, durable and scalable — and if you Google them in detail, you will find studies saying they are capable of being commercialized and often as many other studies that are more skeptical. I find it always appropriate, as I read to step back and WIIFT – No it’s not something new to smoke; just the compulsion to ask what’s in it for them. It’s okay to have a hidden agenda, but agenda’s too hidden discomfort me.

I know, perhaps even truly believe, is this. For green energy related items, if we put a simple price (tax) on carbon (greenhouse gases) and gave out no subsidies, these new technologies would have a better chance to blossom. With American ingenuity, Indian and Chinese too, thousands more ideas would come out of innovators’ garages. America still has the best innovation culture in the world. But we need better policies to nurture it, better infrastructure to enable it and more open doors to bring others here to try it.

Remember, conditions, both technical and geopolitical continuously change – So if you’ve made up your mind about either the best way to go, or about its all a conspiracy, move on to the next article in our blog. Today’s favorite is tomorrow unintended consequence. However, that’s better than sticking one’s head in the sand or believing in perpetual motion. Remember, there’s no free lunch and as a taxpayer and consumer you must always end up paying the piper!

May your world get greener and all creatures on Earth become healthier and more able to fulfill their function in this Gaia’s world.


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