Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Historic Hawai'i energy agreement; no promises

The state of Hawai'i and the U.S. Department of Energy on Monday (Jan. 28, 2008) signed a historic agreement to move the Islands aggressively down the path toward energy efficiency and self-sufficiency.

(Photo: Karsner and Lingle sign agreement. Governor's office image.)

Clearly, something needs to be done. The Islands get more than nine-tenths of their electrical power from oil and coal—more than any other state in the union. And as fuel prices spike, we're paying a dear price for our fossil fixation.

What's needed, the agreement says, is “a fundamental and sustained transformation in the way in which renewable energy efficiency resources are planned and used in the State.”

The new agreement contains a lot of good ideas and directions, but no promises. More on that later.

The overarching goals are two: Increase energy efficiency, which reduces power demand; and increasing the role of renewable energy, which should replace fossil fuels as the prime source of the state's power.

Here's how the Department of Energy (DOE) introduces it in a press release (Warning: The federal government is involved, so there will be a lot of acronyms.):

“DOE Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Alexander Karsner and Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) establishing the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative (HCEI), a long-term partnership designed to transform Hawaii’s energy system to one that utilizes renewable energy and energy efficient technologies for a significant portion of its energy needs.

“The partnership aims to put Hawaii on a path to supply 70% of its energy needs using clean energy by 2030, which could reduce 72% of Hawaii’s current crude oil consumption. This type of clean energy transformation will continue to help sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

What does the federal government get out of this deal? A laboratory. Hawai'i is small, and it has lots of wind, sun, a heck of a lot of former sugar cane and pineapple acreage where you could grow energy crops, and readily accessible ocean for wave and thermal energy systems and so on. If you can't do this here, where can you?

“Hawaii’s success will serve as an integrated model and demonstration test bed for the United States and other island communities globally, many of which are just beginning the transition to a clean energy economy,” Karsner said.

The energy department will provide its policy and technical expertise, and presumably will back that up with cash, although it is not promising to provide any money at all.

The agency says it will hire experts in clean energy technology and launch multiple projects with both government and private industry. Some of those projects are amorphous, like “designing cost-effective approaches for the exclusive use of renewable energy on smaller islands.”

Others are a little clearer. For instance, one of the problems with wind and solar energy is that they are only intermittently available, and it's hard to run a stable power grid with sources that surge and ebb. The goal here: “designing systems to improve stability for electric grids operating with variable generating sources.”

The agreement promises to employ cutting-edge technologies for energy efficiency and renewable energy in new military housing projects. It would expand the use of crops for making fuel and power.

And it would seek to alter the arcane language of government permitting and regulation to support clean energy.

The agreement between the feds and state is only six pages long, and it's available here: www.eere.energy.gov/pdfs/hawaii_mou.pdf.

It proposes demonstration projects in clean energy, as well as systems to convince people to accept the new technologies. It seeks to ensure that folks up and down the economic scale get benefits from it. It would have the technologies readily available for use in other locations. And it would seek to train local workers “with crosscutting skills to enable and support a clean energy economy.”

The frightening thing about the memo is that it makes a lot of sensible statements, but commits no one to anything, including the funding to make it work.

Some of the caveat language:

“It is not legally enforceable and shall not be construed to create any legal obligation on the part of either party.”

“This MOU and the attached Appendix can be terminated by either party at any time...”

“Nothing in this MOU authorizes or is intended to obligate the parties to expend, exchange, or reimburse funds, services, or supplies, or transfer or receive anything of value.”

After all, it's just an MOU, not a contract, not a funding document. It's kind of like a blind date: I'll go out with you, but I won't commit to paying the dinner tab, I won't commit to whether there'll be a second date, and not even whether I might dump you midway and go home with someone else.

The state says it will be seeking some federal money, and Karsner said that he anticipates there will be some federal funding for Hawai'i coming up. No promises, no amounts discussed.

That said, there does appear to be a general commitment to move forward.

Among the first steps will be the formation of “working groups” to study key areas, and these groups have amazing deadlines. They are to be established by the end of January, to have draft plans in place by the end of March and by the end of June 2008, they are to “issue final strategic implementation plans that include a set of initial actions needed to jump start activity in each of the energy performance areas, two-, five- and ten-year goals, and specific actions that will be taken to meet the transformational goals required in each of the major areas.”

The groups are to review:

End-use efficiency, electrical generation, energy delivery, transportation, technology integration, sustained financing sources, and policy and regulatory mechanisms.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Monday, January 28, 2008

Huge blooms of life in the "dead" ocean north of Hawai'i

Everybody knows that inside the great oceanic gyre in the North Pacific, nutrient levels are so low it's effectively a lifeless desert.

(Photo: NASA image of a plankton bloom off Australia.)

And as commonly happens, what everybody knows may be based on a kernel of fact but is in other ways wrong.

It turns out certain forms of life are not only capable of surviving there, but they they regularly thrive.

A group of University of Hawai'i and Oregon State researchers recently published “Summer phytoplankton blooms in the oligotrophic North Pacific Subtropical Gyre: Historical perspective and recent observations. The authors include John Dore, Matthew Church, Roger Lukas and Dave Karl, all of the Department of Oceanography in the University of Hawai'i's School of Earth Science and Technology, and Ricardo Letelier of Oregon State's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.

Their paper was published in January 2008 in the Elsevier journal “Progress in Oceanography.”

Phytoplankton is tiny drifting plant matter. Oligotrophic refers to areas that don't seem to have much nutrient material to sustain life. Many of the world's oceans have great gyres, which are deep regions around which the currents and winds flow, and which are often extremely low in nutrients.

The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre dominates the middle of the north Pacific, and is surrounded by the great clockwise current that runs north along Japan, east along Alaska, south along California and then west above the equator. It extends well to the east and west of the Hawaiian Archipelago.

The waters within the gyre tend to be very clear because there is so little stuff living in it. But a few years ago, scientists began noticing that occasionally, and generally in summer, they'd see evidence of a spike in life—plankton blooms.

Eventually, they were even able to get images of these blooms from satellites. They showed up as great drifting clouds in the ocean.

That's a huge burst of life. But how were these plants getting fed?

Dore and his colleagues, after sampling the ocean within such blooms, found that the forms of plankton that dominated were ones that could “fix nitrogen,” meaning they didn't need nitrogen in the water for fertilizer. They could convert nitrogen from forms plants can't use into forms they can.

Most appeared to be a blue-green algae called Trichodesmium and diatoms that contain nitrogen-fixing blue-green algae, which are also called cyanobacteria.

While early indications were that these phytoplankton blooms might be rare, Dore said researchers now believe they might be every-summer events.

“I believe that the bloom is an annual phenomenon, but its coverage and exact timing are variable. Its surface expression, which can be viewed from satellite ocean color sensors, can appear in one area, then diminish, only to intensify later in the summer/fall season in another area,” Dore said in an email.

At some point, the plants in these blooms die off, and much of their material probably drifts down into the deep ocean. There, it may form a sudden burst in food resources for the creatures of the dark depths.

“The seafloor biota tend to lead a feast-or-famine existence and the demise of this bloom often results in a big feast for them. Their life strategies may well be 'tuned' to this seasonal pulse of fresh organic matter,” Dore said.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Polynesian "express train" backed by genetics

A new study of the history of Polynesians and their ancestors suggest the predecessors to modern Polynesians were perhaps better at leaving their culture than their genes in places they stopped.

(Photo: A wet sail aboard Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hōkūle'a.)

The new work also appears to back up the thought that Polynesians tended to move on when they came across other cultures, and stay when they were the first inhabitants of a new land.

The new genetic study was done on DNA samples from nearly 1,000 Pacific Islanders from 41 Pacific populations. It indicates that the voyaging ancestors of today's Polynesians left Taiwan or an island nearby, passed fairly quickly through Melanesia, and then swept into the vast unpopulated central and eastern Pacific.

The work shows pre-Polynesian genetic links to the present-day inhabitants of the Melanesian islands—which include the Solomons, New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago—are comparatively weak.

“The Genetic Structure of Pacific Islanders,” was published in the Public Library of Science's journal, PloS Genetics. The authors are biological anthropologist Jonathan S. Friedlaender of Temple University and an international team of collaborators, including, Françoise R. Friedlaender, Floyd A. Reed, Kenneth K. Kidd, Judith R. Kidd, Geoffrey K. Chambers, Rodney A. Lea, Jun-Hun Loo, George Koki, Jason A. Hodgson, D. Andrew Merriwether, and James L. Weber.

The Polynesian languages, like Samoan, Hawaiian, Tahitian and New Zealand Maori, are part of a larger group of related tongues called Austronesian, which may have their roots among the aboriginal people of Taiwan thousands of years ago.

“The distribution and relations of Pacific language families reflect ancient settlement. Austronesian is a widespread and clearly defined linguistic family with more than 1,000 member languages, which has its greatest diversity, and likely origin, in Taiwan (about) 4,000–5,000 years ago,” the authors write.

About 3,300 years ago, once open-ocean sailing had been developed, these folks moved out from Taiwan, and during a stay in the Bismarck Archipelago, they developed into what became known as the Lapita People, whose best-known artifact is carefully decorated pottery.

But these were a voyaging people, and they soon voyaged again.

“After only a few hundred years, 'Lapita People' from this area had colonized the islands in Remote Oceania as far east as Tonga and Samoa, where Polynesian culture then developed,” the authors wrote.

The Friedlaender paper says that while these voyagers left significant parts of their language and culture in the Melanesian islands at which they stopped, that culture was “grafted” onto existing genetic populations and wasn't associated with wholesale genetic mixing.

“Our study suggests that in the Pacific, and specifically in Near Oceania, there is only a modest association between language and genetic affiliation. Oceanic languages were introduced and dispersed around the islands within the last 3,300 years, but there was apparently only a small infusion of accompanying 'Austronesian' ancestry that has survived,” the paper says.

The Friedlaender work argues strongly for the Express Train theory of the population of the Pacific. A rival theory, the Entangled Bank, suggests that there was so much movement and interaction that it would be impossible to clearly identify the ancestors to Polynesians. Another rival theory, the “Slow Boat to Polynesia,” says the Polynesian people sprang out of long-existing Melanesian populations.

The Express Train, by contrast, argues that the early voyagers moved fairly quickly from what is now Taiwan, through Melanesia and then onward into the rest of the Pacific.

The Friedlaender paper says its genetic results pretty much resolve the issue in favor of the Express Train, although it concedes that more research could more closely link the ancestral home to other islands of Southeast Asia than just Taiwan.

“Polynesians are closely related to Asian/Taiwanese Aboriginal populations, while they are very weakly associated with any Melanesian groups (the closest association there appears to be with New Ireland populations),” the paper says.

See a copy of the paper at genetics.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371/journal.pgen.0040019

For students of Polynesia, there are intriguing links between these studies at the western end of Polynesia and recent studies at the eastern end. There, DNA work on chicken bones found in Chile showed that these South American chickens had came across the Pacific, and were closely related to the chickens of the Polynesians.

Previously, researchers had noted that sweet potatoes, an American crop, had somehow become established throughout Polynesia.

It's indirect evidence that the famed Pacific navigators visited the Americas and perhaps conducted trade. But to date, there's no evidence they stayed. Genetic studies have not to date shown any evidence of Polynesian DNA in the inhabitants of South America.

Polynesians of the voyaging millenia, one might say, were guests who were careful not to wear out their welcome.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Ocean acidification, carbon dioxide damage Hawaiian reefs

Climate change is happening in the air, but big changes associated with greenhouse gases are also taking place in the ocean.

One of them is acidification. New research shows that increased acidity in the oceans, associated with more carbon dioxide in the air, will have dramatic impacts. Lots of forms of life that depend on a slightly alkaline and stable ocean chemistry will suffer.

In a recent report on the subject, a group of Hawai'i, Florida and Bermuda scientists conducted studies that show that coralline algae will have difficulty in a more acid ocean.

Why is that important? Because in many places it is coralline algae, more than actual coral, that binds our Hawaiian reefs together.

This is the form of life—a crusty, often pink-colored kind of algae—that acts like the resin binding fibers together in a surfboard skin. It grows up and over chunks of rock, broken coral, and other materials, solidifying them and creating a sturdy barrier, protecting the Islands from the rough seas.

The new research was reported in a December issue of Nature Geoscience, in an article entitled, “Decreased abundance of crustose coralline algae due to ocean acidification.” The authors are Ilsa Kuffner, of the U.S. Geological Survey's Florida Integrated Science Center, Paul Jokiel and Ku'ulei Rodgers of the Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology, Fred Mackenzie of the University of Hawai'i Oceanography Department, and Andreas Andersson of UH Oceanography and the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences.

“These findings suggest that at lower pH, these reef-building algae could be much less competitive on future coral reefs,” Kuffner said.

The chemistry of acidification is pretty simple. If you bubble carbon dioxide through water, it becomes more acidic as carbonic acid is formed. If you increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the oceans soak up some of it and become more acidic.

The increased acidity of the oceans is already being measured. It's not about models of something that might happen. It's already happening.

The researchers, working at Coconut Island in Kāne'ohe Bay, in a nine-month study ran seawater with with different acidities through six jars. They found that coralline algae settle at lower rates and grow more poorly when the acidity is higher. Also, fleshy (which is to say, soft rather than hard) algae grew more readily.

“The results of our study were visibly obvious and may provide a glimpse into the future,” Kuffner said.

“We saw a 92 percent degrease in the area covered by the crustose coralline algae in the tanks with lower pH compared with tanks at today's ocean pH level. Non-calcifying fleshy algae increased by 52 percent.”

One issue for future research is whether the competition from fleshy algae increases the decline in coralline algae, the authors say. Another issue could be how changes in acidity add to detract from the impacts of increased temperature associated with global warming.

“Predicting changes in community structure resulting from ocean acidification and other stressors (for example high-temperature anomalies) will be important in modelling future rates of carbonate production by coral reefs and associated ecosystems,” the scientists say in their conclusion.

The impact for crustoese coralline algae and for our oceans, they say in a press release associated with the scientific article, is potentially severe.

“They carry out key ecological roles that affect the health and sustainability of coral reef ecosystems.

“Not only do they build reef framework, produce sand, and help cement loose coral fragments into massive reef structures, they also attract reef-building coral larvae by providing a place to settle.

“If these ecosystem services are left undone, coral reefs and associated systems and coastlines could be notably altered as the pH of the oceans slowly declines,” they said.

(We've discussed this before in this blog. See: http://raisingislands.blogspot.com/2007/11/mackenzie-climate-perspective-watch-out.html and http://raisingislands.blogspot.com/2007/10/ocean-acidity-rising-faster-than-feared.html and http://raisingislands.blogspot.com/2007/09/ocean-acidity-from-co2-could-violate.html and our initial take on the issue, http://raisingislands.blogspot.com/2007/09/ocean-acidity-next-big-climate-thing_01.html.)

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Friday, January 18, 2008

Huge advance in hybrid battery technology--more power, longer life

Among the relatively few complaints about electric and hybrid cars is, what do you do with a pile of toxic batteries when they (too quickly) wear out?

(Photos: Test car in the United Kingdom goes 100,000 on new UltraBattery. Credit Advanced Lead-Acid Battery Consortium. Researcher Rosalie Louey prepares battery components. Credit CSIRO.)

Battery performance and battery life have been a big, muddy anchor preventing faster movement in a number of technologies to reduce fossil fuel use.

A team of researchers has now combined known technologies in a unique way that promises to increase the life of batteries by as much as four times.

Turn that number around, and it means a 75 percent reduction in the amount of battery waste.

It's an indication that electricity storage technology is hardly close to a standstill.

The breakthrough was announced by researchers with the Energy Reformed National Research Flagship of Australia's CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, who developed it. Battery construction was by Japan's Furukawa Battery Company, and testing in the United Kingdom was done through the American Advanced Lead-Acid Battery Consortium.

Their UltraBattery is in actual use. It's loaded on a hybrid car, which has now been driven more than 100,000 miles on a test track in the United Kingdom.

The UltraBattery combines a supercapacitor with a lead acid battery to create a battery that, in the words of CSIRO, “lasts longer, costs less and is more powerful than current technologies used in hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs).”

One of the bonuses of the capacitor is that it takes a charge quickly and delivers a charge quickly. The UltraBattery loads the capacity quickly during braking, and employs the capacitor again during heavy acceleration. A lead-acid battery is the kind that's in your car now. They tend to be great for long, slow charging and long, slow discharging, but their performance can be significantly decreased by the kind of sudden demands that capacitors love.

“Previous tests show the UltraBattery has a life cycle that is at least four times longer and produces 50 percent more power than conventional battery systems, It's also about 70 percent cheaper than the batteries currently used in HEVs,” said David Lamb, who heads low emissions transport research with the program.

The program said it also has UltraBattery applications for renewable energy technologies like solar and wind power.

Some local links:

Cars that inflate:


Fuzzy logic and batteries:


Cars that run on air:


© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Mercury's Hawaiian connection, and is it volcanic?

We'll soon know lots more about Mercury than we once did, thanks to a voyaging spacecraft called MESSENGER.

(Photo: An image from the MESSENGER spacecraft during a flyby Jan. 14, 2008, showing Mercury at the edge of night and day. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington.)

We already know that Mercury is hot, except where it's not. On the sunny side, it can reach 800 degrees

Fahrenheit, while on the night side, that can drop more than a thousand degrees.

That it's a small planet, just a third wider in diameter than our Moon.

That it spins very slowly compared to Earth. From one Mercury noon to the next takes half an Earth year.

And that, like the Moon, it gets pounded by space rocks. Since it has no atmosphere, meteorites blast to the surface without burning up as many do in Earth's atmosphere. Images of the planet make it look remarkably battered and Moon-like.

But Mercury, the planet closest to the sun, is so close to Old Sol that's it's difficult to study thoroughly without being blinded by the brightness alongside. The last time researchers had a good look was during the Mariner 10 spacecraft mission in 1991. The new mission is the Mercury surface, space environment, geochemistry and ranging effort, whose first and sometimes second letters have been cobbled together into the word messenger.

University of Hawai'i researcher Jeffrey Gillis-Davis, with the Hawai'i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology, is a member of the MESSENGER team.

“If Mercury were a puzzle, we would only have half the pieces, which makes it difficult to put geologic processes into a global perspective. MESSENGER will fill in a lot of those missing puzzle pieces this month,” Gillis-Davis said.

His role is to use an array of sensors on the craft to study the planet's origin and its geologic evolution, to determine whether volcanic activity has played a role and to compare its geology to that of the other rocky planets, like Earth.

After the first flyby this week, the spacecraft will swing past the planet again in October 2008 and September 2009, and will enter orbit in March 2011.

Learn more on the web at messenger.jhuapl.edu/

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A cheap, nimble, inflatable(!) car

Take this car to the beach. It floats.

In the continuing evolution of the automobile, you'll keep hearing about air cars.

On that theme, add the idea of an inflatable car to the odd concept of a compressed air-powered car (currently licensed by India's Tata Motors; a report on that car can be found in the December 2007 archives in this blog).

The inflatable vehicle is the brainchild of a bunch of innovative San Francisco engineers at XP Vehicles. Their sparse website is www.xpcarteam.com.

And is this thing perfect for Hawai'i? Light, long-range, low environmental impact, and of course an inflatable car is unlikely to become a rust bucket.

In this case, the proposed vehicle (if it gets developed, actually driving one will be a year or two, or maybe three, down the road) is an electric car. Initial marketing is aimed at Asia, not the U.S., and currently it seems that the firm does not plan to seek federal government safety approvals.

There aren't a lot of real good images of what this car would look like. There reportedly would be several models. But the XP folks have several really interesting design and marketing ideas.

One of them is a price for a car that drives at freeway speeds that's between $3,000 and $10,000, depending on the model.

Another is a car that's shipped in two cardboard boxes. You put it together with a savvy friend in a couple of hours.

You could order it direct, or through a local dealer.

Getting it street legal is a local issue. Says the company: “Your local dealer is responsible for assembling and certifying the vehicle for your region. If you order a flat-pack vehicle that you assemble, then you are responsible for local certifications.”

It would be powered by batteries, a fuel cell or a combination. It's light in weight and the company on its website suggests, intriguingly, that the electric car could have a 2,500-mile range.

There are suggestions you could drive your inflatable car off a small cliff without injury, that it would float in a flood, and so forth. These apparently are accidental benefits of the design.

“The nature of the inflatable construction, on those that use it, offers secondary advantages which are not part of the intended use but which could possibly provide additional safety in such circumstances,” the company website says.

The car will have all the regular features inside a normal car, with storage space, a place to dock your iPod and GPS, sport seats and wheels, xenon or LED headlights, a “flotation package,” and a completely interchangeable body. Tired of the red model? Switch to sky blue. No problem.

Will anyone ever actually be able to buy one of these? That's not clear. But it's another intriguing idea that turns standard auto design on its ear.

The XP Team has launched the design in part to qualify for the automotive X Prize (see auto.xprize.org). This is a $10 million prize for a clean, efficient, functional car that will meet the needs of the consumer.

In an announcement Jan. 10, 2008, X Prize said: “The Automotive X PRIZE, which was created to help break the world’s addiction to oil and stem the effects of climate change, is an independent and technology-neutral competition, open to teams from around the world who can design, build and bring to market 100 MPG equivalent vehicles that people want to buy, and that meet market needs for price, size, capability, safety and performance.”

More than 50 teams have already indicated they plan to enter. Those that qualify will build their cars and participate in a cross-country race in 2009 to 2010 to prove their concepts.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Friday, January 11, 2008

Sailboat mystery, ocean winds and currents blend

A mysterious sailboat drifts abandoned in the Kaua'i channel.

(Photo: The stricken Bug Trap at the Coast Guard dock in Nāwiliwili.)

A longtime resident is thrilled to find a glass ball floating off the coast of Maui.

A turtle off Wai'anae mistakes a drifting plastic bag for a jellyfish.

A giant cluster of net and ropes tears up coral heads as the surf pounds it across a French Frigate Shoals reef.

What do these things have in common?

The north Pacific's currents and winds.

They are a vast interconnected network of water and air moves like a living thing.

This is the system that Spanish navigators used to carry gold from Acapulco to Manila, taking a southern route that took them westward between Hawai'i and the Equator, and returning on a northerly route that carried them eastward in the region a few hundred miles north of the Hawaiian archipelago.

It is the system that carries glass fishing floats from the Chinese and Japanese coasts to Hawaiian shores. The system that drifts cargo, storm-washed off trans-Pacific ships, round and round the ocean until it disintegrates or washes up on some coast.

In addition to the clockwise flow of the North Pacific Current, between California and Hawai'i there is the wind system sometimes known as the Pacific High, a clockwise air flow that Transpac sailors use to most quickly accomplish the downhill ride to the Islands.

These winds and currents also carry a lot of junk, littering our reefs and beaches with nets, ropes, plastic cups, bottles, fishing floats and lots more.

It can be tough to identify the source of some of that material, but occasionally the debris flow is punctuated by a poignant item.

In the most recent example, it was the Catalina 30 sloop, Bug Trap.

Kaua'i fisherman Henry Zeevat and his father Hans were out fishing about 20 miles east of Nāwiliwili when they came across the stricken vessel, its mast missing, rigging hanging over the side, a barnacle-encrusted nylon line dragging from the bow and a sail flapping on the deck.

“We started yelling and screaming to see if there was anybody aboard,” said Hans Zeevat. There wasn't. After consulting the Coast Guard by radio, they towed the sloop into port.

The Bug Trap had left Dana Point Harbor on the coast of California Oct. 3, 2007, headed south to San Diego, a 100-mile trip, with its new owner, Darrin Bunker, an inexperienced sailor, at the helm.

When it was found Jan. 6, 2008, the boat had evidence of a fire, perhaps an explosion, in the cabin. At least some of the wire rigging had been cut. There was still gasoline for the engine, along with food, cigarettes, beer, personal computer and Bunker's personal effects. No notes indicating what might have happened to the boat and its skipper, or when it might have happened.

Law enforcement authorities, including the Coast Guard and Kaua'i police, are investigating. Some folks discussing the mystery on the Web have suggested pirates, but it seems doubtful a self-respecting pirate would take a boat and then leave beer, cigarettes and a computer behind.

More likely some kind of catastrophe, although it's difficult to imagine a single scenario that combines a cabin fire with a lost mast.

In any case, the inexorable winds and currents took over, pushing Bug Trap south and east until it drifted, rolling in calm weather last Sunday, in the Ka'ie'iewaho Channel, a third of the way from Kaua'i to O'ahu.

Like another piece of marine debris.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Thursday, January 10, 2008

LEDs: Still kinda dim, but the future looks bright.

With nations, including the U.S., sounding the death knell for energy inefficient incandescent light bulbs, folks are actively expressing concerns over the heir apparent, compact fluorescents.

Among the problems: toxic mercury in the fixtures that can spread when they break, and which may require special treatment when it's time to dispose of burned-out fixtures.

(Photo: Three LED puck lights, each using a dozen independent LED units.)

Fortunately, the next lighting advance is already in place, and it doesn't have any mercury.

It's LED lighting, the acronym for light-emitting diodes.

These are the low-wattage lights that glimmer on the fronts of your computer to indicate its status, on your video camera to tell you it's operating and on your phone that tells you you have a message.

They work very differently from incandescents and fluorescents. Here's how the U.S. Department of Energy describes an LED's mechanics:

“It consists of a chip of semiconducting material treated to create a structure called a p-n (positive-negative) junction. When connected to a power source, current flows from the p-side or anode to the n-side, or cathode, but not in the reverse direction. Charge-carriers (electrons and electron holes) flow into the junction from electrodes. When an electron meets a hole, it falls into a lower energy level, and releases energy in the form of a photon (light).”

LEDs, which have been in flashlights for a while now, are being fine-tuned to act as area lights as well.

Among the key issues with LEDs is getting a nice white natural light out of them—white is not a natural color for this technology.

“Red LEDs are based on aluminum gallium arsenide (AlGaAs). Blue LEDs are made from indium gallium nitride (InGaN) and green from aluminum gallium phosphide (AlGaP). "White" light is created by combining the light from red, green, and blue (RGB) LEDs or by coating a blue LED with yellow phosphor,” says the Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office website.

A second challenge is getting them bright enough, but there's been plenty of research into that, and it's resulting in dramatic advances. It used to be that LED flashlights were kind of a joke. Today, you can actually make your way with them, and they're easily bright enough to read by.

Energy savings are already impressive, and they're growing. Lighting efficiency is mentioned in lumens per watt (amount of light divided by amount of energy required). Your grandmother's incandescent lightbulb gets 10 to 18 lumens per watt. Compact fluorescents get 35 to 60. As of late in 2006, LED lights were rated as anywhere from 22 to 59 lumens per watt, but it's estimated that with further technological advances, those numbers could nearly triple.

The Department of Energy figures the national energy savings in lighting from LEDs could run into the high tens of billions of dollars.

Also, they can handle vibration and rough treatment. And they don't burn out with nearly the frequency of other lights. (They can last 25 times longer than incandescents and 5 times longer than compact fluorescents, according to the energy department.)

The bad news: They are expensive, although energy savings, long life and lack of pollution problems could balance that.

Too, they do produce heat, and that heat needs to be dissipated to prevent changes in color, and reduced life of the fixture.

A key researcher in making LEDs brighter, Faiz Rahman of the University of Glasgow, said the future looks...well, you know.

“LEDs not only use less power than current energy efficient light-bulbs but they are much smaller and can last years without needing to be replaced. This means the days of the humble light-bulb could soon be over,” Rahman said.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Monday, January 7, 2008

Emissions aren't just about climate--they're still killing us

In all the furor over carbon dioxide and global warming, many folks have lost sight of some of the other impacts of air pollution.

It's still killing us.

A simple search found a pile of recent research, linking air pollution to low sperm counts, low birth weights, asthma and other health problems in kids, heart and blood pressure issues in adults and on and on.

Do you need another reason to be unhappy with the neighbor who climbs into her/his SUV or high-powered truck, or zoom-zoom luxury sedan (read: toxic emission pumpers)?

Do you need something besides envy to inform your dismay with folks building ridiculously appointed, energy-inefficient luxury homes?

Do you need a reason to think twice when you pile clothes in the dryer that could be air-dried, flick on the air-conditioning, fail to use public transportation or neglect to insist your lawmakers pay immediate attention to these issues?

How about this: It's making you, and your children, and your neighbors sick.

There's plenty of evidence of it, much of it brand new, but lots more that's been around for years.

The carbon dioxide that comes out of tailpipes and smokestacks can be associated with a lot of compounds in addition to carbon dioxide—sulfur compounds, nitrogen compounds, benzene, formaldehyde and the like—which aren't good for humans or the environment.

Even in places like Hawai'i, where in most places, tradewinds appear to blow the skies clean. More on that later in this article.

“Primary care physicians should be aware of the acute and chronic deleterious clinical effects of diesel exhaust,” says an article in the Journal of Family Medicine, “The Toxicity of Diesel Exhaust: Implications for Primary Care,” dated Jan. 1, 2008.

“Urban air pollution is associated with inflammation, oxidative stress, blood coagulation and autonomic dysfunction simultaneously in healthy young humans, with sulfate and O3 as two major traffic-related pollutants contributing to such effects,” says an article in The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, “The Effect of Urban Air Pollution on Inflammation, Oxidative Stress, Coagulation, and Autonomic Dysfunction in Young Adults,” published in 2007.

A 2004 study found correlations between exposure to auto pollution and both blood pressure and heart rate variability in Brazilian traffic controllers. (European Heart Journal, “Effects of air pollution on blood pressure and heart rate variability: a panel study of vehicular traffic controllers in the city of São Paulo, Brazil.”)

Air pollution is having a significant impact on male fertility, according to a recent study by the Academy of Science's Institute for Clinical and Experimental Medicine, which looked at the health of Prague police officers who worked outdoors. Many other studies have shown that globally, male sperm counts are down by half over the past century, a reduction linked to pollution, cigarettes, diet and other issues.

A 2005 article in the journal Epidemiology found that kids were significantly more likely to be diagnosed with asthma if they lived hear freeways in Los Angeles. The culprit seems to be compounds from vehicle exhaust.

A 10-year Queensland, Australian, study, just published in the journal Environmental Health Perspective, shows that fetal size and infant birth weight is reduced when mothers are exposed to air pollution.

“"When analysing scans from women at different distances to monitoring sites, we found that there was a negative relationship between pollutants such as sulphur dioxide found in diesel emissions, and ultrasound measurement. If the pollution levels were high the size of the foetus decreased significantly,” said Dr. Adrian Barnett, who helped do the study.

"Birth weight is a major predictor of later health, for example, bigger babies have been shown to have higher IQs in childhood and lower risk of cardiovascular disease in adulthood," he said in a Jan. 6, 2008, press release from the Queensland University of Technology.

Perhaps the interesting thing about this study for people in Hawai'i is that the research was done in Brisbane, a coastal city like Honolulu.

“While some people may think there is no air pollution in Brisbane because the air looks so clean, you have to remember that most air pollutants are not visible to the naked eye, people do have a very outdoor lifestyle, and homes are designed to maximise airflow. So although the actual levels of pollution are low our exposure to whatever is out there is relatively high,” Barnett said.

Folks in Kona know that being coastal isn't enough, since they've lived with pollution, vog, from Kïlauea's eruption for more than two decades. A 2005 article in the journal Geology, Oregon State researchers reported sulfur dioxide levels in Ka'u were sufficient to cause lung health problems and were nearly double the standard set by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

For Hawai'i residents, it's also no longer just about our smokestacks, our tailpipes and our volcano.

An indication of the global nature of pollution is that you're breathing Beijing's air. Research is showing that air pollutants are traveling around the planet. Ozone levels higher than EPA standards have been found moving from Asia to the Americas at high elevation. West Coast instruments have detected the byproducts of combustion in Asia.

“Pollution from megacities and biomass burning, including precursor gases to hydrogen oxides such as acetone and formaldehyde, lofted into the troposphere...these compounds can...be transported great distances before descent, possibly influencing the chemistry of remote regions,” said Penn State meteorology professor William Brune, after taking measurements over Hawai'i and other Pacific regions and finding pollution from industrialized nations to the west of us.

At some level, this discussion recalls the “tragedy of the commons,” which suggests that we will ignore long-term, widely dispersed bad things in our drive to grab immediate, personal, short-term gains.

In view of all this, one wonders how the owners of megahomes and urban tanks justify their behavior:

I've heard these arguments:

“To hell with the rest of the world, this makes me feel safe;” and “I can afford this, and that's what matters;” and frighteningly, “I don't believe in global warming and I don't care about pollution, and I'm making a statement.”

It's easy to blame them, because their behavior is a toxic drag on the community.

But how about the behavior of those of us who drive more fuel efficient cars, who live in moderate-sized homes and who use compact fluorescent lighting. Is our overall behavior adequate in other respects?

If it's not, this is what we're saying: “I'm clueless, and I don't care enough to get one.”

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Using fuzzy logic to get miles out of hybrids and electric cars

Folks have a distressing tendency to believe that things once true will always remain true.

In the energy field, that kind of thinking is being turned on its head all the time.

(Photo: A deep cycle battery and a car, neither representative of the batteries and cars discussed in this story, but there just for illustrative purposes.)

New research, new technologies, new applications and changes in the price of oil—they all work to change the mix of what works, how well and how much better or cheaper than the next thing.

University of Hawai'i researchers Bor Yann Liaw and Matthew Dubarry, who are both engineers and materials scientists, are working on improving our understanding of how electric vehicles work, and how to make the battery banks last longer.

The two work with the Electrochemical Power Systems Laboratory at the Hawai'i Natural Energy Institute, which is in the university's School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology. Their most recent paper, “From driving cycle analysis to understanding battery performance in real-life electric hybrid vehicle operation,” was published in the Journal of Power Sources.

Liaw and Dubarry have been working with a fleet of 15 Hyundai Santa Fe electric SUVs operated by Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaiian Electric, the City and County of Honolulu and the Hawai'i Electric Vehicle Demonstration Project, studying how people use the cars, and how ways of using them affect their performance.

The cars were used for errands and commuting, some at highway speeds and others—notably the military base cars—kept operating at lower speed limits. How to combine information from all those different driving styles into something that can help improve performance is the challenge, the researchers said.

“Conducting driving cycle analysis with trip data collected from (electric and hybrid vehicles) is very difficult and challenging,” they wrote.

The researchers combined something called fuzzy logic and pattern recognition to track the behavior of the vehicles. Fuzzy logic is a system for getting useful information out of complex systems that don't produce simple yes-no or true-false answers.

They used equipment tracking speed and time to measure how the cars were being driven, and looked at the pattern of battery discharge.

“Our ultimate goal is to use real-life data and laboratory testing to establish a realistic model for battery performance and life prediction,” they wrote.

In an email, Liaw conceded that some scientists question the viability of fuzzy logic in such issues, and he said his and Dubarry's work has not yet yielded specific recommendations for improving battery performance. But he said he is convinced the process will work.

“Yes, we have found an interesting way to quantify such influences in using the battery for portable applications by the users, but we need more efforts to make such understanding useful for implementation into practical devices to improve the battery life and efficiency," Liaw said.

It is the kind of work that, if successful, will yield improved electric vehicle performance—perhaps refuting the assumption that electric cars can never be use for more than short-hop driving.

And it's an example of how new research has the potential to significantly change our understanding of whether what used to be true, still is true.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Black coral: old threats, some good news

Hawai'i's deepwater black corals have been declining in population, due to fishing for the precious coral industry and an invasive white coral, the snowflake coral.

(Photo: Black coral "tree" with oysters attached. This is Antipathes grandis, one of the prime precious corals harvested for jewelry in Hawai'i. Hawai'i Undersea Research Laboratory photo.)

But there is hope that tougher fishing regulations and the reduced spread of the snowflake coral—at least in the prime black coral habitat of the 'Au'au Channel, between Maui and Lāna'i—will help preserve the coral beds.

The snowflake coral problem is yet another example of the threats of invasive alien species in the Islands, even in the dark depths around 200 feet below the ocean's surface, although recent surveys seem to indicate that at least off Maui, snowflake coral expansion seems to have stopped.

Black corals have declined 25 percent over several decades in the 'Au'au Channel, wrote Willow Hetrick, a University of Hawai'i Marine Option Program graduate and editor of the program's newsletter, Seawords, in its December 2007 issue.

Of 200 species of black corals worldwide, 15 are found on Hawai'i's deep reefs and two of these are the primary targets of the black coral jewelry industry: Antipathes dichotoma and Antipathes grandis.

She said the snowflake coral Carijoa riisei, was first spotted in the Islands in Pearl Harbor in 1972, and may have arrived growing on the bottom of a ship. It is now found throughout the main Hawaiian Islands, but not yet in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The invasive white soft coral moved rapidly through the waters of the main islands.

“Evidence shows that snowflake coral is accelerating its spread and exploding in abundance,” Hetrick writes.

She said that deepwater surveys from 2001 to 2004 using the Hawai'i Undersea Research Laboratory's submersible Pisces V showed that more than half the black coral colonies deeper than 230 feet were covered with snowflake coral.

But in a report last year to the Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council, University of Hawai'i researcher Samuel Kahng said that a follow-up survey in 2006 showed that the invasive expansion had stopped and perhaps snowflake corals had dropped somewhat.

“It is possible that the situation at the Keyhole Pinnacle (in the 'Au'au Channel) has stabilized or even improved,” he wrote in “Ecological impacts of Carijoa riisei on black coral habitat.”

But researchers have not published their thoughts on what's causing the possible decline, and Kahng cautioned that the survey results are not as thorough as they could be, since it is difficult to be certain that precisely the same areas were being surveyed in 2006 as in earlier assessments.

Kahng said the threat of the snowflake coral partly a result of its weed-like growth habit. Its growth is 10 times faster than the black coral Antipathes dichotoma, he said.

But fishing is a significant threat as well, in part because the precious black corals are slow-growing and are not aggressive re-seeders. NOAA Fisheries in October 2007 issued a new regulation to protect the corals from overfishing. It limits all fishing to coral “trees” at least four feet tall and at least an inch thick at the stem. Previous regulations had allowed some harvesters to take smaller corals.

In the Federal Register, the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council said the regulations are not expected to bear immediate fruit in terms of restoring coral populations.

“A long period of reduced fishing effort is required to restore the ability of the stock to reproduce at the maximum sustainable yield if a stock has been over-exploited for several years,” the report said.

Copies of the rule and associated information on the fishery are available at www.wpcouncil.org/hawaii/PreciousCorals.htm.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate