Posts Tagged ‘Energy’

Costa Rica Journal

Well folks, if you were wondering where I have been for the past month, let me clear that up.  I have been in Costa Rica for an internship/tropical ecology class/field work.  So, although I haven’t posted in quite a while, I think I can make it up to all of you by posting my experiences from my journal here.  I will add my pictures to that in order to show you the fantastic place I stayed and the wonderful ecosystem with which I fell in love.  Starting tomorrow, right here, I will post a day from the trip each day.  If you have been following this blog for long enough, then perhaps you remember my virtual trips through Africa and South America.  Well, this will be much like that, except it really happened.  I only hope I can convey, to one degree or another, just how spectacular this place is.  I hope you enjoy it.

Also, just let me know what you think of the new setup and tell me if you prefer this one or the old one.

The new one is up now and here is a picture of the old one.


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Science and Soul: Beyond Pestilent: BP Oil Leak Coverage

***UPDATE:  I will be updating this one post instead of writing twenty thousand little posts and continually adding to it.  So, if you wish to follow this, just scroll down and find out what you missed!***

###Update number 3 is up.###

For my first post back, I have decided to talk about BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  In order to understand what is going on now, we need to look to the past.

Certainly Not Beyond Politics

In 1913 the British took control of Iran’s Oil Fields though the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (AIOC).  The British government controlled 51% of the company’s stock.  In 1951, the Iranian people democratically elected progressive leader Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh.  Mossadegh ran a campaign whose main issue was the control oil fields.  Even though Iran had a huge amount of oil, the Iranian people weren’t getting their fair share of the profits from the AIOC.  So, when Mossadegh was elected, he made efforts to nationalize the oil fields.  Something along the lines of, “Iranian oil for Iranians.”  Not surprisingly, the AIOC wasn’t too happy about this.  In response, they funded SAVAK, the Iranian “domestic security and intelligence agency:” essentially a secret police infamous for its brutality.  In another interesting twist the CIA trained SAVAK forces and Washington DC gave them weapons.  In 1953, SAVAK helped Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi take control of the government in a military coup, essentially overthrowing a democratically elected leader with a military tyrant.  Guess what AIOC decided to rename itself forty years later?  If you guessed British Petroleum (BP), then you guessed right.

But BP didn’t only destroy political stability in the past, but the environment and local people as well.

“To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.” –John Muir

Many people remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill which occurred 11 years ago in Prince William Sound of Alaska as a Exxon oil tanker ran aground.  Oil leaked from the tanker, fouling 3,200 miles of shoreline and 10,000 square miles of ocean.  This destroyed local communities who depended on the ocean for their livelihoods, killed countless fish, sea birds, and ocean mammals, and possibly permanently disrupting the ecosystem.  Exxon promised to pay for the damages to local communities (sound familiar?).  They were originally ordered to pay 5 billion dollars.  But after many court appeals, they cut the fee to approximately 500 million dollars.

Collateral damage of our energy greed.

The tanker was bound south from the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline.  The pipeline ran 800 from the oil fields of the North Slope to the port city of Valdez where tanker ships were filled.  This pipeline was established by a group of companies, collectively known as Aleyeska, which included (cue the intro music) BP!  BP was a part of the decision-making process which allowed the spill to occur.  Ecologists long warned that navigating the area would guarantee a catastrophic spill.  Again, the executives of Aleyeska took no heed of the warnings and careened down a dangerous path which ended in tragedy.

“There’s an old saying in Tennessee – I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee…that says, fool me once, shame on…shame on you. Fool me…you can’t get fooled again.”  –W

In 2005, one of BP’s oil refineries exploded in Texas City, Texas.  The explosion was caused by workers starting the process of separating light and heavy gasoline components without removing sufficient quantities of the resulting gasoline products.  A warning system which would have alerted the workers to the buildup of product was disabled.  The workers however, noticed the problem and opened the discharge valve, to little avail.  Combustible vapors leaked into the nearby area and a car’s ignition started the fire.  The fire and explosion killed 15 people and injured 170 more.  An analysis of the incident revealed that BP violated several safety measures.  Also, several similar incidents with combustible vapor leaks were reported, but corrective actions were not taken because funding was not approved to install safer systems.

Beyond Prosecution

Part of the Prudhoe Bay Oil Spill

In 2006, BP’s oil pipeline in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska leaked nearly 270,000 gallons of crude oil into the Alaskan tundra: the largest oil spill on the Alaskan North Slope.  The North Slope boasts high biodiversity, with many species endemic to the area.  It also contains most of Alaska’s oil.  Fortunately, if such a word can be used to describe an oil spill, the incident occurred during the winter while the land was frozen.  Had it occurred during the summer, cleanup would have been much more difficult with oil leaking into the Beaufort sea.  Analysis of the pipeline revealed large amounts of corrosion, to which management did not pay heed.  Warnings were sent by inspectors and workers.  BP claimed that the lack of action was caused by a lack of available funding.  Interesting, seeing as how they made $22,000,000,000 in profits that year.  Hmmm…it seems that BP has a habit of cutting costs without paying heed to the possible implications of their decisions.

The EPA was in charge of the investigation surrounding the spill.  Investigators learned that several workers along the pipeline were concerned about the corrosion and state of the pipeline and alerted authorities.  They did this at their own risk, as BP has a history as a vengeful company where workers who reported such issues could very well be laid off.  Unfortunately, there was little governmental oversight of the Alaskan pipeline at the time.  This information proved that the upper tiers of the company knew about the problems, but opted not to fix it, choosing instead for the risky cost-cutting strategy: criminal negligence.  EPA investigators dug deeper into the issues, but their efforts were constantly being undermined by BP’s stalling and cover-up.  When legal teams asked the workers who spoke up before, they were very unforthcoming, which is understandable, considering the vindictive nature of the company.  After the grand jury was used to obtain the witnesses’ testimonies, the legal team were forced to use a subpoena to obtain documents regarding the pipeline.  BP buried them in quite literally millions of pages of documents in order to slow down prosecutors, many of which were not necessary.  The final death blow to the investigation was dealt in August of next year.  The US State Attorney under Bush’s administration asked the EPA investigators what they could prove at that point in time.  The investigators admitted that due to BP’s efforts to hamper the process, they could only prove a criminal misdemeanor at that given time.  This was a far lesser offense than what could have and should have been tried.  They they added that they would still need more time to complete the investigation.  The State Attorney’s office then ordered them to close the investigation.  This was an unbelievable decision which was unheard of before that time.  An EPA investigator was never prevented from completing their course of action.  Well, unheard of before the Bush/Cheney years.  At any rate, BP later paid only $20,000,000 in fines out of the possible $800,000,000.  Apparently, this slap on the wrist did not really cause BP to change their ways.

It is worth mentioning that BP had 760 willful egregious safety violations in the last three years according the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.  Which is 759 more than Exxon (they had 1).  Exxon!

New Sheriff in Town

The Minerals Management Service is an agency of the Department of Interior charged with…

charged with the management of the renewable energy, oil and gas, and mineral resources on the federal outer continental shelf in an environmentally sound and safe manner, and to collect, verify, and distribute, in a timely fashion, mineral revenues generated from federal (onshore and offshore) land and Indian lands.

The agency is often accused of being in bed with oil, coal and gas industry corporations.  For example,  Paul Stang was a supervisor for the Mineral Management Service, or MMS, but later went on to work for Shell (an oil company).  Jim Mayberry was Special Assistant to the Associate Director of MMS for three years.  After he left, he created an energy consulting company and negotiated a contract with guess who: the MMS.  He was later convicted in violation of conflict of interest law. Other administrators received “gifts” from oil and gas execs.

Ken Salazar: New Sheriff in Town

But then everything was changed, because, in his words; not mine, Ken Salazar was, “the new sheriff in town.”   In reality, not much changed.  He allowed the Grey Wolf to be removed from the Endangered Species List in Montana and Idaho, opening them for hunting.  Evidently, 95 breeding pairs of wolves in the country is enough.  It’s not like they are incredibly important to the ecosystem or anything.  He also upheld the Bush junta decision not to allow greenhouse gases to be regulated by the Endangered Species Act.  Even though he himself said that melting sea ice due to global warming is the leading threat to polar bears, this was not the place or time to act.

The MMS has played a key role in the BP oil spill as well.  In March of 2008, they sold the rights to drill to oil in an action to BP.   In 2009, they decided that acoustically controlled shut off valves aren’t really required against underwater spills at the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil drilling site.  It was only the deepest offshore well in history at 35,000 feet below water.  Finally, the MMS, exempted BP from having to file environmental impact statements.  The MMS justified this claiming that the risk from offshore oil drilling was practically nonexistent (to be fair, so did Obama; oops).  They also allowed BP, as well as other oil companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without obtaining permits from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  NOAA assesses the threats of activities to endangered species.  Apparently, oil drilling is not very threatening.  The MMS overruled staff biologists and engineers who brought up issues about the safety and environmental impact of  drilling proposals in the Gulf of Mexico and on the North Slope of Alaska.  In fact, the MMS allowed industry officials to fill out their own inspection reports and file them.  In a final slap in the face, after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and spill, the MMS approved 27 new offshore drilling projects.  2 of them were for our favorites: BP.

“We’re Never Out of Our Depth”

The Deepwater Horizon offshore oil drilling rig is owned by a company named Transocean, the world’s biggest offshore drilling contractor.  Their motto is: “We’re never out of our depth.”  Depsite the comforting slogan, Transocean has a checkered past (well, to be fair, most offshore drilling contractors do).  In 1979, a Transocean oil rig blew out in Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico.  It was capped just under a year later.  During that time 71,500 barrels of oil impacted 162 miles of U.S. beaches.  It was the third largest spill in history.  In six years before the Deepwater Horizon rig blowout, 12 people were killed in accidents on Transocean rigs.

Look Familiar: Bay of Campeche Oil Spill

Them Again?

Oh, and Halliburton is involved in all of this.  They were the service provider to the rig.  We all know about their business transgressions (you know, Cheney…CEO of Halliburton…Vice President…Iraq…service provider in Iraq…etc.  They also had a number of environmental transgressions.  Toxics Release Inventory reports show that Halliburton’s Farmington, New Mexico facility generated a toxic cloud of gas to evacuate their homes.  They have also been implicated in the oil spills in the Timor Sea in 2009.  They also had a part to play in the BP spill.

And They All Came Tumbling Down

In February of last year, BP filed an environmental impact plan for the Deepwater Horizon to the MMS.  The company came to the conclusion that even though a oil spill would occur as a result of drilling, the well was far enough offshore to prevent severe impacts.  Thanks to 2008 regulation changes, they did not have to file a contingency plan.   The BP well was fitted with a blowout preventer, but was not fitted with acoustically-activated alert triggers.

In March 2010, the oil rig had problems with drilling mud and gas releases.  In the same month, the blowout preventer was damaged.  This damage was never reported.  and it was found that the last inspection was in 2005.  Workers interviewed after the blowout said that they did see warning signs pointing to a potential catastrophe, but they were afraid of being fired if they alerted authorities.


Deepwater Horizon Burns

On April 20,2010, pressure in a marine riser, a temporary extension of a subsea oil well to a surface drilling facility, expanded the pipe, causing an explosion.  This was followed by an inferno.

According to an unnamed witness, Deepwater Horizon installation manager Jimmy Harrell, an employee of Transocean, was speaking to someone in Houston, Texas when the fire started, and was heard screaming, “Are you fucking happy? Are you fucking happy? The rig’s on fire! I told you this was gonna happen.”

The Coast Guard airlifted all but eleven workers out of the rig.  The remaining eleven, after intense searching, were declared dead.  The rig sank two days later.  The oil officially began to spill from the well on that day.  Two robotic submersibles tried to cap the well, but ultimately failed.

BP somehow only calculates 1,000 barrels leaking into the Gulf of Mexico each day.  In only three days, an oil slick covering 580 square miles was formed.  The slick was only 30 some odd miles from shore at that time.  Booms were set up to prevent the oil from hitting the coast.  Three days after that, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates the leak flowed at 5,000 barrels or 210,000 gallons each day.  It appears that BP made another slight miscalculation.  To cut their losses, BP tried to burn the oil off of the surface of the water.  It didn’t work.  And, on April 30, oil washed ashore at Venice, Louisiana.

In Memorium

Jason Anderson, 35, Midfield, Texas; Aaron Dale Burkeen, 37, Philadelphia, Mississippi; Donald Clark, 34, Newellton, Louisiana; Stephen Curtis, 39, Georgetown, Louisiana; Gordon Jones, 28, Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Roy Wyatt Kemp, 27, Jonesville, Louisiana; Karl Klepping, 38, Natchez, Mississippi; Blair Manuel, 56, Eunice, Louisiana; Dewey Revette, 48, State Line, Mississippi; Shane Roshto, 22, Franklin County, Mississippi; and Adam Weise, 24, Yorktown, Texas.

Well, that takes us through April.  Next week, I will discuss the cleanup efforts that occured in May and June, and are still ongoing.

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John Cleese on Science

Sorry, so little to do and so much time.  Sorry.  Strike that.  Reverse it.  And we’re off…

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Science and Soul: Bloom Box

I admit, I have been absolutely awful about posting as of late.  I apologize.  Work and assignments have kept me very busy indeed.  Now that spring break has rolled around, I am back…at least for a little while.

Perhaps you saw the 60 minutes segment as well, but if you didn’t, I am going to write about the Bloom Box.

Bloom Box inventor, KR Srihdar, with his new invention.

This new technology is a type of fuel cell.  A fuel cell, simply put, is a cell capable of generating electricity from chemical reactions.  Although fuel cells have been around for many years, this one promises to be quite interesting.  The Bloom Box is a small tower of these metal alloy fuel cells packaged together.  It is said that one can power a European home and 2 can power an American home (yeah, we use more energy).   These are then placed in a larger unit.  This piece of equipment takes in oxygen and some kind of raw fuel, and will then react in a chemical reaction to produce electricity.  There are no carbon emissions as a result of the reaction, and it eliminates the need for the large-scale power grid currently in place.  Each home would have its own.  Magic…

Hmm….sounds too good to be true.  Now, I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but in some senses it already is, and could be even more so.

First off, the Bloom Box still needs some kind of fuel input, be that fossil fuels, biomass, or alternative energy.  The box itself doesn’t combust the fuels, but it does need some energy to start the chemical reaction.  Now, using fossil fuels would negate any benefits to the fuel cell.  Biomass, quite frankly, isn’t much better due to the environmental costs associated with accumulating it.  However, assuming that we use alternative energy like a rooftop solar panel then this could be an energy-efficient mechanism.  When speaking about energy efficiency, we must remember energy is not lost, it is simply converted into another form.  Energy can either be kinetic (in motion) or potential (stored).  Kinetic energy forms include electricity (movement of electrons), heat, light (electromagnetic waves), sound, and motion.  Potential energy comes in the form of chemical, gravitational (function of height and mass), mechanical (tension), and nuclear (the energy holding together atoms).  Also, net energy yield decreases with each energy of conversion.  So, for example, lets say we take solar energy and use it to generate steam (thermal energy), to turn a turbine (mechanical energy), to produce electricity.  This wastes much more energy in the conversions than just taking chemical energy and producing electrical energy (like in the Bloom Box).

Secondly, it’s the economics, stupid.  The Bloom Box currently costs about 2,000 USD per unit.  This is not something most people want to spend on a relatively new, and experimental technology.

Third, nobody besides the inventor, KR Sridhar, knows exactly how it works.  The company has remained oddly secretive about their new product, only announcing it recently.  The exact fuel conversion process is also unclear.

Finally, the Bloom Box, as clean as it is, may cause some negative unintended consequences.  The law of unintended consequences states,

“Any intervention in a complex system may or may not have the intended result, but will inevitably create unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes”.

In this case, everybody may think, “Hey!  I’ve got all this clean energy now.  Let’s waste this stuff like there is no tomorrow!”  Well not exactly that, but people might conserve much less energy once they think it is “greener.”  And that kind of defeats the purpose of creating an alternative energy, as energy conservation, for me, is equal parts prevention of climate change and pollution, and controlling yourself and becoming a better, more efficient, less wasteful person.

So, although I love the idea of this new technology, further development will be needed to perfect the process, and drive down prices. Oh, and it would help to know whether it actually works.  But who knows, perhaps the little, decentralized Bloom Box will be the energy of the future.

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Einstein’s theory of relativity, E=mc^2, is probably his most famous scientific work.  The formula, published in 1905, relates energy of a particle to its mass.  Namely, the formula states that a particle’s energy is equal to its mass times the speed of light (3×10^8 m/s) squared.   Thus, energy can be converted into mass and mass into energy. 

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

According to the messed-up world of particle physics, protons and neutrons comprise smaller particles known as quarks, which in turn are bound by gluons.  These are all different subatomic particles.  But something strange came up when scientists were calculating the masses of these particles.  The mass of gluons is zero and the mass of quarks is 171,200 MeV/c2. This is infinitesimally small.  So where is the rest of the mass, as the mass of protons and neutrons is approximately 1 atomic mass unit (amu), or 1.660538782(83)×10−27 kg.  Where is the rest of the mass?

As Einstein predicted, the rest of this missing mass is balanced out by the energy of the movements and interactions between quarks and gluons. 

This formula may be used to produce atomic weapons (releasing large amounts of energy from a small particle), but it has also given us new insights into the world of physics and our very being. 

Tomorrow, I will post about the Clarksville Cave trip.

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A couple of nights back, I watched a fascinating special about the science of running marathons.  Months before the Boston Marathon, Novaput together a marathon team representing a regular, old, cross-segment of society.  Of the 13 members of the team, most are over-weight or have a very high BMI.  Nova wanted to see if these regular people could achieve most folks scoff off as impossible: running the Boston Marathon.  The 13 members of Team Nova, were followed through nine months of training.  (For more about the show: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/marathon/)


Different athletes have different physiques that allow them to excel at their sports.  Football players have large upper bodies with bulky muscles for short bursts of power (fast-twitch).  Futbol players have sinewy muscles, that may look scrawny, but are actually much more efficient at carrying oxygen to the muscles over long distances (slow-twitch).  So what did the “normal” people need to do in order to become marathoners?

VO2max is the most important aspect to a person’s strength endurance sports. It is also a good gauge of overall cardiovascular health.  VO2max is the “volume of oxygen a person can consume in one minute as they exercise at maximum exertion.”  In endurance sports, you rely on oxygen to convert the polysaccharides (sugars) into energy for your muscles, so your efficiency at dispersing oxygen through your body is critical during long distance runs, such as, let’s say, the Boston Marathon.  Elite endurance athletes can consume huge amounts of oxygen when they compete.  Some of their VO2max scores are twice as high as most of us mortals.  For example: Lance Armstrong once measured in at 83.8 ml/kg/min, while the average man at his age would only get between 40 and 50.  We are all born with a genetic range for a certain VO2max, and this is why most of us will never become champion runners, but despite the importance of genetics, we can improve our VOthrough exercise.

Given that VO2max is a measure of oxygen consumption, most people believe that lung capacity, “the volume of air a person can inhale in a single breath,” is an important factor.  Not so, as lung size is not a limiting factor and most people inhale more than they can ever use anyway.  From the lungs, oxygen diffuses into the bloodstream.  Then, it attaches to the iron-based protein hemoglobin on red blood cells, which carry the oxygen to the multitude of cells requiring energy.  Naturally, smoking and diseases like anemia will decrease your oxygen carrying ability.  Runners also create high numbers of red blood cells for transporting oxygen.  Training at high altitudes where the air is thin can create more red blood cells.  Exercise creates new capillaries, tiny blood vessels that supply oxygen to the muscles.  Exercise can also make the blood vessels everywhere less stiff, improving blood flow and reduces clogs in veins and arteries. 

The greatest input to VO2max scores is cardiac output, “the amount of oxygen-rich blood your heart can send throughout your body in a single minute.”  Through exercise are hearts actually increase in size, bettering our cardiac output, which is “the product of heart rate (the number of beats per minute) times stroke volume (how much blood the heart ejects with each contraction).”  

A person’s ability to grow slow- or fast-twitch muscle is mainly genetic, but by training in ways to strengthen a specific type of muscle we can gain each one in turn.  The key to efficient energy production are mitochondria, tiny cell organelles that act as power plants.  Mitochondria combine oxygen with glucose  to make ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which powers cellular work.  In muscle cells, ATP is essential for muscle contraction and therefore motion.  Slow-twitch fibers hold more mitochondria than fast-twitch.  Exercise, again, increases the number of mitochondria and makes mitochondria larger and more metabolically active.  In order to contract and relax, the muscle protein, actin, will use ATP to “shuffle” or “walk” up and down the other protein, myosin.  “Better,” mitochondria also lower muscle fatigue. Sore muscles during exercise are linked to a buildup of lactic acid, which is a byproduct of anaerobic respiration, where glucose is converted to 2 ATP molecules without oxygen, this is much less efficient, and produces the burning lactic acid.  Aerobic respiration, by comparison, produces 36 ATP molecules with oxygen.  Glucose is converted to pyruvate through glycolysis in the cell.  The pyruvate is then moved into the mitochondria where it is stripped of its H+ ions in the Krebs Cycle.  These will pass through the mitochondria membrane creating a proton gradient, a difference in electrical charge.  When the ions pass back through the membrane they go agains the gradient, producing energy to combine a phosphate to ADP (phosphorylation), in order to produce ATP, the energy molecule.  (http://biology.clc.uc.edu/courses/bio104/cellresp.htm)

A Diagram of Cellular Respiration

There is a runner in all of us and it just takes some hard work to achieve that.

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Earth Hour in 2008 was an amazing global event.  Towns, villages, and cities across America and around the world turned out their lights for a mere hour to voice their concerns and make a difference about climate change .

On March 29th, people all around the planet turned off their lights to make a statement: to help find new ways to reduce their impact on the environment, and to start a movement that ends with a solution to the common challenge we all face like global warming.

Millions of Americans alone, in cities like Chicago, Atlanta, Phoenix, and San Francisco and hundreds of other smaller communities joined together in this event.  Elsewhere around the world, countries spanning five continents did the same, from dozens of other communities large and small–joined mayors, citizens’ groups, schools and corporations from coast to coast. Around the globe, people on five continents took part, from Poland to Zimbabwe.

Earth Hour broke down cultural, religious, and geographic boundaries and walls.  People from all around the world came together to work toward a better world.   And for those skeptics to whom the figure: energy use reduced 10.2%, does not matter, the fact that this event brought all of us together in union is reason enough to support this movement.

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