Archive for the ‘chemistry’ Category


Green issues are sometimes complex.  We need to recycle many things, like electronics, but we certainly don’t want to poison others in the process.  Efforts to protect the environment and conserve valuable resources must be coupled with proper health and safety procedures.  Unfortunately, just saying this doesn’t make it happen.  Developing countries are becoming a dumping ground for much toxic waste and proper environmental health and safety is being ignored, both by local opportunists and suppliers of e-Waste from developed nations.  From Greenpeace:

This shocking documentary from Greenpeace shows how “second hand goods” exported to Ghana for reuse are actually causing horrendous pollution. “People in the developed countries bring them here to bridge the digital gap but in actual fact they are creating a digital dump.”

Ghana — The latest place where we have discovered high tech toxic trash causing horrendous pollution is in Ghana. Our analysis of samples taken from two electronic waste (e-waste) scrap yards in Ghana has revealed severe contamination with hazardous chemicals.

Similar problems occur in China and, surprisingly, even in developed countries.  See related information about toxic waste dumps all over the world here.

However, you can also read good news about environmental protection in Europe and the effect it is having on US companies.

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Original text copyright © 2008 James K. Bashkin


Basel Action Network, named after an agreement on protecting developing countries from toxic waste, criticized 1-800-Got-junk for failing to promise that their free electronic waste recycling program would avoid shipping toxic waste to developing countries.

The story about the Basel Action Network (BAN) vs. 1-800-Got-Junk is supplemented by the following to give a snapshot of where we stand with “good” and “bad” recycling:

  1. Why and how to recycle your electronics
  2. The recycling program that pays you back heads to Europe
  3. Cell Phone Recycling Giant “Pace Butler” will integrate its efforts with environmental groups
  4. Toxic Waste being Dumped in Italy
  5. How to Recycle Plastic- Advice from the EPA
  6. Eight Ways to Green Your Technology
  7. Toxic E-waste Pouring into the Third World
  8. New Biodegradable Plastics could be Tossed into the Sea
  9. Planetsave | China’s Toxic E-Waste Problem Grows Daily

read more about BAN and e-waste | digg story about BAN and E-waste

© James K. Bashkin, 2008

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The EPA should be contributing to public health, sustainability, education on complex environmental concerns, and related issues. I know that its members work hard to do so, but they are often thwarted by management. Bob Grant of The Scientist.com wrote about criticism from Congress over the EPA shutting down or limiting access to important libraries (note, free registration may be necessary to view this and other articles linked to below below that are found on The Scientist.com) .

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) closure of several of its research libraries is flawed, unjustified and is depriving academics, government employees, and the public of crucial environmental data, according to a Congressional report released yesterday (Mar. 13).

Of the EPA’s 26 libraries, six libraries have changed their hours of operation, and four others have been shut since 2006. These include its Office of Environmental Information headquarters library and the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics Chemical library, both in Washington, DC.

The report, issued by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO),…

Since I know EPA staff and scientists who are dedicated to making information available to researchers, State and Local governments, and the public, I can only speculate that these unfortunate plans must come from a combination of EPA’s politically-appointed “leadership” and budget cuts imposed by the will of the Bush White House.

In what may be a closely related story, Christopher Lee of the Washington Post reported that:

Unions at the Environmental Protection Agency have pulled out of a long-standing partnership with management, saying Administrator Stephen L. Johnson has failed to deal in good faith on issues such as scientific integrity and job evaluations.

In a Feb. 29 letter to Johnson, 19 union leaders, who represent 10,000 EPA employees, complained that he and other top managers have ignored the advice of unionized workers and the agency’s own principles of scientific integrity. They cited issues that include fluoride drinking-water standards, a California bid to limit greenhouse gases, and mercury emissions from power plants.

It is important to note what Mr. Lee reports about the scientific integrity agreements between EPA management and employees:

The agency’s scientific-integrity principles, jointly developed by unions and managers during the Clinton administration, call for employees to ensure that their scientific work is of the highest integrity, and to represent it fairly, acknowledge the intellectual contributions of others and avoid financial conflicts.

We see yet more examples of how the Bush White House has weakened the EPA in times of great environmental turmoil, when data and public understanding of data are critically important. At a time when the US needs public trust in the EPA, the actions of political appointees involved with environmental decision-making continue to erode that trust. Specific examples include denial of the requested changes to California automotive CO2 emissions standards, registration of toxic and highly carcinogenic methyl iodide as a fumigant, refusal of the Federal government to obey court orders to uphold the Endangered Species Act and related denial of scientific data that was later overturned by the courts.

From NPR:

The chief of the Environmental Protection Agency has authority to set the air quality standards to protect public health and the environment. But the White House is now interfering with new efforts by EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Ignoring scientists is nothing new for Bush, but in this case he also ignored the U.S. Supreme Court. The EPA wanted to include a tougher secondary standard during growing seasons, designed to protect forests, crops and other plants from ozone, which retards plant growth and depletes soil moisture. Alarmed at the costs this would exact on polluters, the White House Office of Management and Budget sent a letter to EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson saying the EPA couldn’t impose such limits without considering their economic effect. This is flatly untrue; a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court in 2001 held that the EPA did not have to consider the costs of its clean-air regulations, only their scientific basis. When the EPA still refused to back down, the White House sent a curt letter saying the agency had been overruled by the president: The secondary standard was out.

© James K. Bashkin, 2008

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Note: a slightly different version of this article was published previously at BlogCritics Magazine under Sci/Tech.

China is suffering from many environmental disasters in its rush to industrialize, but some of its environmental problems are being addressed. Which is leading the race, industrialization or the environment? I provide some examples that contrast environmental practices in China and fully-industrialized nations, including a recent revelation from The Washington Post about the Chinese industrial plants that supply “polysilicon” for solar panels.

I once worked with industry insiders who had visited a Chinese chemical plant. They told a frightening story in which the chemical plant manager acted essentially like a Warlord and clearly made things dangerous for local villagers, especially those who might protest toxic waste dumping or other questionable activities by the plant. It was related to me that jail, or worse, might be the consequence of any protests, and the visit was, in many ways, a disturbing experience for these Western scientists and engineers.

More recent stories in the press, including some discussed on this blog, have continued to add to concerns about China’s environmental practices, even though there are signs that, at least in some cases, official or corporate protection of the environment is improving in China. However, I was also told during a recent interview with noted Chinese author Qiu Xiaolong that some restaurants in China are now claiming to soak live fish and sea food in “clean water” for several days to wash out toxic chemicals. This is not a technique that I would expect to be very successful. In fact, the title of this article is a reference to the powerful novel about Chinese corruption written by Qiu Xiaolong, When Red is Black.

Now there are revelations from reporter Ariana Eunjung Cha and the Washington Post, published March 9th, 2008: found here or at Solar Energy Firms Leave Waste Behind in China (one or both of these links should work). From Ms. Cha, we learn about the Chinese response to the world’s hunger for polysilicon, or polycrystalline silicon, a material used to make most current solar panels* and whose price has risen more than 10-fold in the past five years. The rush to meet market demands has led to many new polysilicon plants being built in China. One such plant, which belongs to Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Co. and is “located in the central plains of Henan Province near the Yellow River,” is a focus of the Washington Post article.

The result of all these new polysilicon plants in China, in addition to supplying the growing worldwide need for solar panels, is a set of serious environmental problems, mainly for poor Chinese villagers who populate the rural areas where Chinese chemical plants spring up. These (and other Chinese chemical plants) plants are typically located outside normal tourist routes, and operate outside the law, or outside the stated laws and policies of the Chinese National Government. In fact, in true Warlord fashion, chemical plant managers are often synonymous with local law.

The specific problem with polysilicon manufacture is the byproduct SiCl4 (silicon tetrachloride) which can be recycled and processed safely, as is done by “developed nations.” Silicon tetrachloride is both used and generated in the process of refining silicon to high purity. When simply dumped in the countryside, silicon tetrachloride releases highly-toxic, corrosive hydrochloric acid, and generates a fine powder containing silicon dioxide, the same material that sand is composed of, though the fine nature of the powder allows in to be inhaled or ingested. From the Washington Post article:

“The land where you dump or bury (silicon tetrachloride) will be infertile. No grass or trees will grow in the place. . . . It is like dynamite — it is poisonous, it is polluting. Human beings can never touch it,” said Ren Bingyan, a professor at the School of Material Sciences at Hebei Industrial University.

Because of the environmental hazard, polysilicon companies in the developed world recycle the (silicon tetrachloride), putting it back into the production process. But the high investment costs and time, not to mention the enormous energy consumption required for heating the substance to more than 1800 degrees Fahrenheit for the recycling, have discouraged many factories in China from doing the same.

An independent, nationally accredited laboratory analyzed a sample of dirt from the dump site near the Luoyang Zhonggui plant at the request of The Washington Post. The tests show high concentrations of chlorine and hydrochloric acid, which can result from the breakdown of silicon tetrachloride and do not exist naturally in soil. “Crops cannot grow on this, and it is not suitable for people to live nearby,” said Li Xiaoping, deputy director of the Shanghai Academy of Environmental Sciences.””

Even though initial capital cost of silicon tetrachloride recycling facilities is high the operating costs are also high, I believe that it would be wrong to think that funds aren’t available in China to implement this waste processing technology, it is simply a question of priorities (and greed). In fact, some Chinese are becoming extraordinarily wealthy from polysilicon companies, and the company focused on by the Post‘s article, Louyang Zhonggui, as reported by Ms. Cha,

“is a key supplier to Suntech Power Holdings, a solar panel company whose founder Shi Zhengrong recently topped the list of the richest people in China.”

Nevertheless, the arrogance displayed by Luoyang Zhonggui officials is unfortunately all too familiar to those who follow civil rights or environmentalism in China, or who follow the continuing struggle to introduce tighter environmental controls to the United States over the past 50 years:

“Wang Hailong, secretary of the board of directors for Luoyang Zhonggui, said it is “impossible” to think that the company would dump large amounts of waste into a residential area. “Some of the villagers did not tell the truth,” he said.”

Apparently even the impossible is commonplace in China. Ms. Cha and the Washington Post are to be congratulated for their investigative field work. In fact, the situation is simply terrible:

“Each night, villagers said, the factory’s chimneys released a loud whoosh of acrid air that stung their eyes and made it hard to breath. “It’s poison air. Sometimes it gets so bad you can’t sit outside. You have to close all the doors and windows,” said Qiao Shi Peng, 28, a truck driver who said he worries about his 1-year-old son’s health.

The villagers said most obvious evidence of the pollution is the dumping, up to 10 times a day, of the liquid waste into what was formerly a grassy field. Eventually, the whole area turned white, like snow.”

As I hope I’ve made clear, the disregard for human safety and environmental health exhibited by Luoyang Zhonggui and numerous other Chinese companies is not unique to China. In the US, we’ve seen this attitude from many sources over the years, including mining companies and various energy and chemical producers (please ask if you would like examples, or read my back pages). In Europe, similar problems also are well documented. However, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the European Union, and growing public awareness (dating back to publication of Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring) have eliminated, remediated and prevented many environmental problems (even if there are still areas that badly need intervention or need the government to enforce its own laws and regulations).

So, should China be allowed to poison its own people and land just the way other countries did during the rise of industrialism? Of course, outsiders have little influence on internal Chinese policies, even with the so-called pressure of the Olympic Games facing China now. However, that doesn’t mean we should ignore the problems. While developed nations still have a great deal of work to do at home, and must remain vigilant in protecting the environment, it is a tragedy for the Chinese people that their country is unwilling to learn much from the industrial history of more-industrialized nations.

In the meantime, there is new solar panel technology that doesn’t require polysilicon, for example “solar paint” developed by Nanosolar and “solar ink” recently described by Konarka. Nanosolar’s solar technology is reportedly more efficient than coal at generating electricity. We can hope that this new technology will continue to make inroads into the marketplace and will drive the construction of greener manufacturing facilities. Given the growing demand for green electricity from solar power, such advances can’t come soon enough.

James K. Bashkin © 2008

*Related links: Lifecycle Assessment of Crystalline Photovoltaics by Niels Jungbluth (note this links to a PDF!); for more background on polysilicon fabrication and related processes, see The Handbook of Silicon Semiconductor Technology, W. C. O’Mara, R. B. Herring, L. P Hunt eds., Pub.: William Andrew, Inc. (Noyes Data Corporation/Noyes Publications), 1990, 795pp, Chapter 2, “Polysilicon Preparation” by L. C. Rogers, p 33ff. Also see Wacker Polysilicon, the History of the Future, available as a 13-page PDF or as a (less readable) web page.

A slightly different version of this article was published earlier today (3/11/08) by the author under a nonexclusive license at BlogCritics Magazine: When Light is Dark: Waste from Key Solar Cell Ingredient Damages Chinese Environment. I am grateful to their editors for help.

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CTSI, the Clean Technology and Sustainable Industries Organization, is organizing CTSI Policy Day in Washington D.C. on March 5, 2008. CTSI is a non-profit organization that acts in support of sustainable technologies and “reduced footprint” technologies, including a wide range of topics.

Not every technology supported by CTSI is one that would be on my personal list of favorites. However, the CTSI platform doesn’t leave out any technologies that I place great importance on.

What is CTSI?

The Clean Technology and Sustainable Industries Organization (CTSI) is a not-for-profit membership organization with offices in Cambridge Massachusetts, San Francisco California, Detroit Michigan, Geneva Switzerland and Washington DC.

Mission Statement of CTSI:

The CTSI’s core purpose is to provide a cross industry community to promote clean technology development, profitable commercialization and global integration of sustainable industry practices, enabling the transformation of businesses, governments and society towards a more sustainable global economy. The CTSI develops programs and advocacy towards:

  • Public funded research advocacy
  • Private funded grand challenges
  • Education & media programs
  • Technology publication and dissemination
  • Industry & Policy Leadership programs
  • Community development and networking
  • IP and early stage company matching with investment & corporate partners

From the CTSI website about March 5th, 2008:

Why Should You Attend?

The voice of Clean Technology must be clearly heard in Congress. As campaign platforms are launched and appropriations are made, it is critical that our elected representatives understand the economic impact of clean & sustainable technologies and how federal policy affects your business!

Come share your stories, your needs, and give support to the clean technology policy agenda which includes:

  • Increasing funding for clean and sustainable technology applied research and deployment.
  • Providing for long-term renewable energy tax incentives and implementation policies.
  • Developing tax incentives/capital depreciation mechanisms that encourage investment in efficiency upgrades, clean technology implementations, and life-cycle product management.
  • Encouraging clean & green federal procurement policies.
  • Supporting efforts to remove barriers to public market capital.

Who Should Attend?

Congress wants to hear from the companies and organizations that are changing the energy, water, and environmental landscapes through innovative technologies, processes, or just straight-forward implementation! If you are a senior-level executive at a clean technology company, a clean or sustainable expert or director at a Fortune 1000 company, an investor or financing agent, or another member of the clean technology community that wants to have a seat at the policy table, please contact us for an invitation.
Note: There is NO CHARGE to attend this event, but SPACE IS LIMITED!

The kind of activism shown by CTSI is truly needed to make it possible for clean and sustainable technology to be taken beyond the research stage and into the market place where it can have real impact.

Conventional or traditional technologies have long benefited from Federal support for research, development and commercialization. Often this support starts with grants to academic researcher groups, and the support can progress through a variety of mechanisms, from peer-reviewed grants to both small businesses and small business/university collaborations, to government contracts and other means. While these mechanisms are available for clean technologies and are being used to support considerable research, energy policy and environmental technologies need to be considered matters of national security and treated with appropriate seriousness. Serious commitment includes significantly increased budgets, tax incentives and other support.

Germany has recently made a big push towards solar energy, for example, and this is showing returns today. The US need to follow suit, with major financing and planning by Federal and State governments. As a nation, the US wouldn’t have to borrow l;arge sums of money to pay for oil every day if we could get these new technologies up and running!

Thanks to Steve B., Sam Carana and Rich for helpful discussions and information used in this post.

© James K. Bashkin, 2008

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Steven Chen has started a discussion on Treehugger.com that encourages people with environmental blogs to write in and describe their sites. I recommend that you take a look at the wide variety of blogs represented.  My blog roll also has a list of relevant sites, but it isn’t comprehensive. OneWorldUS is well worth a look, too!

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Researchers found dangerous levels of mercury and arsenic in Lake Baiyangdian, the largest lake in North China, a source of both food and drinking water. First reported by David Kagan in Sunstroke and his latest, book, Doomwatch–the Legacy. Submitted to DIGG by internjack.

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Brandon Keim reports for Wired on a Corporate Code of Conduct announced by Climos, a climate engineering firm involved in using iron to “seed”, or fertilize, growth of carbon dioxide-fixing plankton in oceans. This code of conduct, while voluntary and non-binding, is a welcome step in an R&D area that reminds one scientist of “the Wild West”. There are links to related articles by Brandon Keim and to other information sources relevant to climate engineering or geoengineering.

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IMG_1449

Peaks Island in Casco Bay, off Portland, Maine. Photo by S. R. Shray, used with permission, some rights reserved, 2007

Please check out Treehugger.com for a huge collection of articles, discussion forums, practical tips and wildly utopian but stimulating ideas for helping the environment.

The site also has treehuggertv for video reports (haven’t watched any yet).

As usual, I don’t endorse all the views expressed on the site (though I do endorse my own comments found there!), but I fully support engaging in the discussion and debate on treehugger as well as on my own blog.

We simply will not make progress talking only to people who agree with us or by dogmatically refusing to listen to dissenting opinions. Of that, I am sure. So, again, I invite comments, criticism, debate and discussion. Praise is nice, but not as important as these other responses.

Sample stories from treehugger.com:

IBM Chips In a Wafer

by Tim McGee, Helena, MT, USA

“Although silicon is one of the most abundant elements on earth, single crystal silicon wafers don’t grow on trees- yet. It is actually quite an extensive and expensive process to produce silicon wafers, which are used to create everything from computer chips to solar cells. As announced via the IBM video above, IBM’ers in Vermont have devised a process that allows their rejected wafers to be repurposed for solar cells.”

Garbage-Burning Oven Helps Clean Up and Power Kenyan Slum

by Eliza Barclay, Nomad

“The Christian Science Monitor has a piece out of Nairobi on a garbage-burning oven in the notorious slum of Kibera that aims to preserve the country’s forests, which are swiftly being cleared to provide wood and charcoal for cooking, while finding a way to utilize trash for energy. If successful, Monitor says, the pilot project could be a model for megacities and the waste they create.”

© 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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