Archive for October, 2007


Please see the article (click on the title):

Renewed Effort

Big oil companies are joining the search for the next generation of biofuels

By JESSICA RESNICK-AULT of the Wall Street Journal

Ms. Resnick-Ault provides a discussion of the range of biofuel options as viewed by major oil companies and she reports on their choices, which vary widely. The article mentions this blog (thanks!) in its round-up of relevant blogs. The most promising news reported, from my perspective, is the following:

“ConocoPhillips of Houston … has paired with Tyson Foods Inc. to produce renewable diesel at its refinery in Borger, Texas. Renewable diesel shares properties of conventional diesel fuel but is derived from feedstocks such as food waste rather than oil. A second venture …. unites ConocoPhillips with agribusiness giant Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. to research and commercialize … renewable transportation fuels from biomass, or farm waste.”

Hydrogen fuel cells also make an appearance on the scene courtesy of ExxonMobil. Also in the Wall Street Journal, we find the article (click on the title):

What Price Green?

For many Americans, pretty much any price is too high

By ANJALI ATHAVALEY of the Wall Street Journal

The author describes how unwilling Americans are to give up nearly any conveniences in order to help the environment, even when they believe that the environment needs help. Conservation is modest at best these days, even while a Gallup poll shows that pro-environmental political activism is increasing. In a thorough journalistic approach, the article cites surveys from a very broad range of sources to provide the overall picture of declining interest in things like more energy-efficient kitchen appliances, and it is very credible. Unfortunately! Overall, Europeans are found to be much more willing than Americans to make sacrifices for the good of the environment.

I will repeat my mantra that we have to cut back on energy use and other waste in addition to finding alternative energy sources.

America Unplugged is my new trial balloon slogan for conservation.

However, it is important to remember that plastic shopping bags come from petroleum just like gasoline/petrol does. So, bringing a set of cloth bags to the grocery store will help rid us of our dependence on foreign oil. As will recycling plastics.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007
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I have discussed biofuels, and especially bioethanol from corn, in quite a few posts so far. Some of the discussion has centered on promising (old and new) approaches to biofuels, which I believe include:

  • Biodiesel from waste (fish oil, cooking oil and other sources)
  • Ethanol (bioethanol) from agricultural waste (specifically not from food products)
  • Metabolic engineering of bacteria to aid biodiesel production
  • Chemistry and engineering of new catalysts for biodiesel production (which probably have to be tailored to each different source of raw material)

With the exception of biodeisel from waste cooking oil and very similar sources, these processes are typically still at the research stage and are not being practiced on a large scale.

Much of the discussion here has covered the problems I and others see with current biofuels practices, which include:

  • The terrible impact on the environment of dramatically inefficient processes such as corn to ethanol (corn ethanol)
  • The conclusion by many scientists, myself included, that sound scientific shows a net loss of energy by using corn to make ethanol
  • The environmental impact of corn ethanol or even some “biodiesel farms” is both direct and indirect
  • Clear cutting of rain forests is being driven by biofuel farming
  • Fertilizer alone from corn ethanol production damages fresh water and salt water, not to mention other agricultural chemicals
  • The problems with air quality associated with ethanol as fuel (mostly ozone and formaldehyde generation and increased photochemical smog, all of which lead to respiratory ailments)
  • My belief that research and development can solve problems with air quality from ethanol fuels
  • My prediction that catalytic converters for ethanol-based cars will be cheaper than current models because ethanol fuels can greatly reduce or eliminate nitrogen- and sulfur-containing impurities found in crude oil and gasoline/petrol (depending on whether one uses ethanol or ethanol/gas-petrol mixtures such as E85)
  • The problem that people are taking political and dogmatic stances on alternative fuels instead of examining each issue critically and on its own merits

Then of course, we have the problem that not enough people are talking about and doing something about energy conservation:

Ignoring conservation is particularly a problem in the US and developing countries- Europe is taking conservation seriously and always has in some ways, such as a the huge investment in public transportation

Now a U.N. spokesman has stated that current biofuel practices are creating hunger and starvation problems amongst the world’s poor (though future biofuel generation methods are predicted not to cause such problems):

As reported by EDITH M. LEDERER, an Associated Press Writer,

“A U.N. expert on Friday called the growing practice of converting food crops into biofuel

“a crime against humanity,”

saying it is creating food shortages and price jumps that cause millions of poor people to go hungry. “

The statement by Jean Ziegler called for a stop to the current practice of using food crops to make ethanol, saying that it is leading to hunger of catastrophic proportions among poor people.

Mr. Ziegler did not call for an end to biofuels as a source of fuel. Instead, he proposed a 5 year break in biofuel production to give new technologies that don’t threaten the food economy time to make an impact on the marketplace. These technologies include

  • nonfood crops and cellulose-based sources of biofuels
  • crops that require far fewer resources than corn
  • agricultural waste as a source of ethanol
  • new methods of biodiesel production

Careful to point out that current biofuel practices grew out of good intentions, Ziegler still made it clear that the conversion of huge amounts of food crops into ethanol will lead to serious food shortages in many areas.

As reported by Lederer,

“The world price of wheat doubled in one year and the price of corn quadrupled, leaving poor countries, especially in Africa, unable to pay for the imported food needed to feed their people, he said. And poor people in those countries are unable to pay the soaring prices for the food that does come in, (Ziegler) added.”

Read the full article for more details. Thanks to John B. for pointing out the article to me.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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In case you missed it, a gentleman named Burl Haigwood kindly left a long and detailed comment, and rebuttal, to my recent post on the health effects of ethanol as a fuel.

Because I do want to debate the issues, I thought it best to reprint his response and my related comments here, since otherwise they would remain buried in the comments section.

 

BurlHaigwoodCFDC said in response to An Unfortunate Truth about Bioethanol (from Corn):

I would like to address a few missing and broken links to your argument. When you have only one side in mind during your article and can not give any merit to the only fuel to break the 100 year stranglehold on the oil dominated transportation fuel market – it is just an argument not a debate or discussion. The ethanol program started as an intended consequence to do something about nation’s reliance on imported oil. Since that time we have had several wars in the oil producing region of the world, which has fueled terrorism, we now understand where the greenhouse gases are coming from, we have not discovered any more oil in the US, we are using 40 billion more gallons of gasoline each year, and the oil companies have not produced any alternative fuels out of anything. The issue is about oil not ethanol. Take out ethanol and nothing has been accomplished in 30 years by anyone or anything else. Ethanol is the only fuel that has worked to replace gasoline in 30 years – despite a lot of trying by a lot of people and industries. LPG, electricity, solar, natural gas, biodiesel, and the consumer’s willingness to buy small cars have not worked. Ethanol works and it is better than imported crude oil and gasoline. If you really want to avoid being full of formaldehyde I suggest your try and avoid the estimated 65 carcinogens in gasoline like benzene, toluene, and formaldehyde. Ethanol made in Puerto Rico from sugar cane or from corn in Iowa is the same ethanol and receives the same credits/incentives. Those incentives are available to anyone, including the oil companies, to make alternative fuels in any form from any renewable feedstock. If you believe in a free market, then adding 400,000 barrels of a product that costs less than gasoline to the motor fuel pool should help. In fact DOE says ethanol has lowered the price of crude oil by $2.50 per barrel – that’s $18 billion dollars this year. Other studies show that record oil prices have twice the impact on food prices when compared to ethanol. The oil companies have not made one drop of alternative fuels or anything else to help their customers since they invented lead additives, which took the government 70 years to take out. While you say you are not paid by the oil companies you are doing their work by spreading heated and misguided mistruths about the U.S. ethanol program. That is their intended consequence. I suggest you and others interested in all aspects of a very complex ethanol issue Google The Ethanol Fact Book. Ethanol is not perfect, it is just better than imported crude oil and gasoline. Ethanol is leading the way to a brighter future – not gasoline or imported oil. We need your passion and brains on the solution side of this oil equation problem.

 

 

 

My Response to Mr. Haigwood of the Clean Fuels Development Coalition (CFDC)* is given here:

 

Thank you for taking the time to respond in such a detailed manner. You make many good points, and I’ll try to address them.

First, I am not approaching this subject with any preconceived point of view. Believe me, I would be very happy if ethanol turned out to be the answer to our problems. If corn ethanol were the answer to our problems, I would be even happier. I just want the problems solved, and I’d like to avoid using more nuclear power.

Each post on this blog tends to report on one or more related articles in the scientific or popular press (including the web). Each article has a focus, naturally. The totality of this blog represents my interests and matters that I think should be discussed, so I am delighted by your comments and by the fact that you took the time to read what I had to say.

You were absolutely correct when you said

“The issue is about oil not ethanol.”

 

But this is not complete. The issue is also about the environment and food prices.

I am well aware of the carcinogens in smog from gasoline/petrol. They are made worse in strong sunlight by a process that generates photochemical smog. I am grateful to my colleague Hal H. for informing me of the key discoveries in this field from UC Riverside (the link goes to one scientific article).

My blog was based in part on a new study published in the scientific journal Environmental Science & Technology, as reported on the website Highlight Health. This article predicts serious increases in respiratory problems caused directly by worsening air quality, if ethanol displaces gasoline/petrol as automobile fuel (specifically referring to E85, which is 85% ethanol and 15% petroleum). It is a new article. The results surprised me. On its own, I would have taken it seriously, but not as proof. However, Walter, who writes HIGHLIGHT Health does an excellent job researching for his blog, and he described other research, this time experimental in nature, on the growing ratio of formaldehyde to acetaldehyde in Brazilian air since the introduction of ethanol fuel.

I’m not sure exactly why the formaldehyde problem exists, but I will search the literature and report back. I believe that the formaldehyde is at least partly related to sunlight and ozone, as is photochemical smog in general. I suspect that the very high oxygen content of ethanol relative to petroleum is an important factor in formaldehyde generation, but it might not be. I’ll look into this more.

I would expect that car emissions could be improved so that ethanol-run cars did not suffer from this problem, though it would (or might) require new catalytic converters that, as far as I know, nobody is working on. Developing countries might or might not be able to afford the catalytic converters. The truth is that, with the zero or low nitrogen and sulfur content of ethanol-based fuels, cheaper catalytic converters might handle the problem and work well in place of current models designed to survive sulfur and nitrogen impurities.

So, while ethanol has some problems as a fuel, as I see it, these problems do not seem to me to be insurmountable. This hopeful statement is predicated on people admitting that the problems exist and resources being put into solving the problems. We’ll see what happens.

 

No, the big problem is corn. (Well, oil is a big problem, too.)

 

It is my conclusion, based on the articles I have read, that we are going to destroy the ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico and in rivers and lakes and seas and bays around the world if we continue to grow corn for ethanol. Just the fertilizer alone places far too great a burden on the rivers and streams.

From my recent World Headlines and blogroll, take this New York Times article, for instance, which reports on a National Research Council (NRC) study sponsored by our most prestigious scientific body in the US., the National Academy of Sciences, and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other organizations:

 

“Panel Sees Problems in Ethanol Production

By CORNELIA DEAN

Published: October 11, 2007

Greater cultivation of crops to produce ethanol could harm water quality and leave some regions of the country with water shortages, a panel of experts is reporting. And corn, the most widely grown fuel crop in the United States, might cause more damage per unit of energy than other plants, especially switchgrass and native grasses, the panel said.”

I hope that you read this whole story, Mr. Haigwood. Afterwards, I’d like to see if you still feel the same about corn ethanol. I look forward to continuing the debate.

Personally, I don’t think that we will find a viable solution to the energy and fuel issues without efficient conversion of cellulose-based biomass to fuel and raw materials. There is progress being made in these areas, as I have discussed before.

 

 

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

____________________________________________

*Note, the mission statement of the organization Mr. Haigwood is connected with is:

“The Clean Fuels Development Coalition (CFDC) is an innovative not-for-profit organization that actively supports the development of new technologies and the increased production of fuels that can reduce air pollution, stimulate our economy, and lessen our dangerous dependence on imported oil. Our goal is to drive the demand for clean low-carbon fuels, like ethanol, through a combination of efforts that include collaborating with industry, educating and communicating with the media and other strategic influencers, and support new legislative initiatives that will help us achieve our mission.”

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Almost ten years ago, journalist Brendan Horton assessed the state of Green Chemistry for the prestigious journal Nature. It makes interesting reading to compare that article with the current state of the the field. Take a look and send comments if you would like.

“Industry is discovering that ‘green’ approaches to chemical processes are not only beneficial to the environment but can boost profits too. It’s fertile ground for collaboration between academic and industrial scientists.”

Question: what surprises you about where Green Chemistry is today?

Meanwhile, from the New York Times, two articles that discuss the environment in the US and in Costa Rica offer some hope and advice:

____________________________________________________________________________________

U.S. Forgives Costa Rican Debt to Help Environment

By MARC LACEY

The U.S. has agreed to forgive $26 million of debt and the government of Costa Rica has committed to invest a similar amount in conserving high-risk natural areas.

OP-ED COLUMNIST; The Green-Collar Solution

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

Van Jones has been on a crusade to help disadvantaged communities understand why they would be the biggest beneficiaries of a greener America.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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This is going up in honor of Blog Action Day, 10/15/2007.

One site that does a lot to make affiliations of “dissenters” clear is the Global Warming Forum. Here we find opinion, commentary, quotes and graphics on many subjects, including:

Curious, to say the least, don’t you think?

I recommend reading Global Warming Forum regularly and learning about a variety of things, including who and what are behind some of the anti-environmental and anti-“environmental regulation” papers that some people publish routinely.

  • Please don’t get the impression that I condemn industrially-funded research, or that I believe all dissenters are evil.
  • I am funded by industry and the Federal government, and plan to keep it that way.
  • In the US, Federal funding levels are low, and industry has always funded important work, worldwide
  • Furthermore, some scientists may believe that global warming is a non-issue without having any ties to large corporations.

However, as required by all reputable, “peer-reviewed” scientific journals (as opposed to newspapers, magazines, trade magazines, etc.), all publications acknowledge funding sources and make clear any possible conflicts of interest. “Peer-reviewed” means that an article has to be read and approved by (typically) 2-3 anonymous, independent scientists and an editor before it can be published. It isn’t a perfect system, but it works pretty well.

Just the other day I found an unreviewed article on the web that was, I felt, really just advertising. It was a very positive discussion of biodiesel, which does have many good properties, but can also be bad for the environment and/or food prices, depending on the details of how it is made and used. The source cited for this article was a website that promotes and advertises biodiesel directly. I tried to contact the author but the email bounced back, so I responded with a post about the problems with Bioethanol (I didn’t want to attack Biodiesel, I just wanted some balance. I address some issues I have with certain types of biodiesel elsewhere in this blog).

There are many things to commend biodiesel, but I’d be willing to bet that any technology examined from only one perspective can sneak up and hurt us:

We need balanced reporting of the benefits and possible drawbacks of all technology!

Let’s take a look at an unrelated example that does acknowledge the “connections”, but also reveals something curious about the past. Searching Googlescholar for the “link between cigarettes and cancer” turns up articles like:

The idea behind this article is that an “electrically heated cigarette” (EHC) is far safer than a cigarette that burns in the normal way. Who cares? It will still kill you. Of course, the authors and their employers from the tobacco industry care. Interestingly, the following note accompanies the paper:

“Philip Morris Research Laboratories GmbH recently changed its name from INBIFO Institüt für Biologische Forschung GmbH.”

Just perhaps, this change took place because people became angry that something called

“INBIFO, the Institute for Biological Research” (translated from the German)

was just an arm of Phillip Morris, the tobacco company. Somehow the “Institute for Biological Research” sounds impressive and independent, especially compared to “Philip Morris Research Laboratories”. I wonder how many years the “deceptive labeling” practice went on.

So, keep reading here, at the Global Warming Forum and elsewhere to have a better chance of judging the quality and sources of information for yourself.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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I couldn’t accept a critical comment because (a) wordpress insisted on treating it as spam and (b) they were right: it was linked to what is apparently a spam site (it tried to download software onto my computer without asking my permission). However, I welcome disagreement, so I put the entire, unedited criticism in the comments section to the post “An Unfortunate Truth about Bioethanol”, though under my own name. I also added some responses.

Not everything about corn-ethanol is bad. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, too much is bad to make it a good idea. See the following EPA report on formaldehyde if you have any questions about how desirable it is as a tail-pipe gas (it has been recognized as the cause of major health problems by the EPA since the 1980s).

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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Politics: my local State Representative, Democrat Maria ChapelleNadal, is up for re-election. Maria has been a tireless supporter of the arts, education, social services, and logic.

Please note that this is unsolicited and unpaid advertising for Maria, and I receive no compensation of any kind: there are prizes for top individual fund-raisers, but I have asked not to be considered for one. If you wish to make a contribution, the following is important:

Individual contributions may exceed what is considered a small donation (usually under $100), but are limited to a $325 maximum for each individual contributor under state law. Checks should indicate your profession and employer (this guards against corporations making stealth contributions via their employees).

Mail Contributions to:

Citizens for Maria ChappelleNadal

7133 Dartmouth Ave.

University City, MO 63130



I have decided that the inclusion of headlines from other news sources, along with the citations to the original sources on the web, constitutes “fair use” in the context of this educational blog. This blog is designed to inform voters and citizens about important environmental and chemical matters, to help people develop informed opinions on these complex subjects.

So, the World Headlines are back.

This topic is too important, the misinformation too substantial, and the good information too widely scattered, for me to stop providing selected world headlines in good conscience.

Also, now that I have figured out del icio us, there is a second feed of 10 recent headlines from sites I have tagged.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007


Because of another major lawsuit regarding the use of RSS feeds as reported by PCWORLD.com, this time by the Associated Press against Verisign’s Moreover news aggregation service, I have for the moment deleted my feed of selected world headlines on environmental and Green Chemistry topics from this site’s blogroll. This is a nonprofit site with no revenue-generating mechanism for me (unless you buy a book at Powell’s Bookstore from my personal recommended book list by clicking through to Powell’s from this site), but I need to explore the legal issues of the RSS feeds in more detail. Unfortunately.

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Test your knowledge of climate change, and see what educators have to say about it, at The New York Times. You may have to sign up for a free New York Times membership to see the story. The educators discuss the natural greenhouse effect and how it is essential for our planet to support life; they distinguish the natural effect from the industrial greenhouse effect. Other frequently-confused matters are clarified, such as the relationship between depletion of the ozone layer and global warming (they are not related in a significant way).

Note that one of the answers given mentions that ethanol burns more cleanly than fossil fuels. This is very true in the sense that fossil fuels contain not only hydrocarbons, they have “impurities” that are nitrogen- and sulfur-containing organic compounds. The nitrogen and sulfur end up as well known air pollution components NOx and SOx after combustion.

However, as previously mentioned on this site on Oct. 8th, predictions of air quality in Los Angeles based on a switch to E85 ethanol-based fuel, and studies of air quality from Brazil, where some cars run on pure ethanol, all show increased amounts of highly-toxic acetaldehyde, formaldehyde and ozone and related species in the air. Formaldehyde and similar compounds damage the lungs, causing inflammation and other problems, and cause serious problems for both healthy people and especially people with asthma. Ozone is a major, direct cause of pollution-related respiratory distress. Formaldehyde is commonly used as a preservative for specimens in biology and medical labs.

If you wish to see the original scientific papers, they are cited here.

As possible explanations for the generation of harmful species from ethanol, I offer the following suggestions:

  • The oxygen in ethanol could, under circumstances of less than ideal combustion, result in formaldehyde and other aldehyde formation.
  • The ready manner in which ethanol absorbs water from the atmosphere interferes with combustion efficiency.

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