Monday, June 30, 2008

Forward to the past: more propellers in our future?

Could prop planes replace the jets that dominate Hawai'i's short-haul interisland market?

Increasingly, at least outside Hawai'i, market pressure is pushing that way.

(Image: Cruising speed of various aircraft—propellor planes appear at the lower end of the scale, although new turboprops can fly at near-jet speeds. Source: IPCC Special Report on Aviation.)

Trends appearing on short-haul Mainland routes see to be moving away from small jets and toward the use of propellor craft—mainly turboprops.

The key reason: fuel.

Or more precisely, the high cost of fuel.

Jets are generally more fuel efficient than props on long hauls—they get their efficiency flying high and long. They lose it if they spent too big a proportion of their time on fuel-costly takeoffs.

The regional airline Horizon in the Northwest, brought jets into its fleet, and now is reconsidering.

It says it will switch to Bombardier Q-400 turboprops. (A turboprop is essentially a jet-like turbine engine that turns a propeller.)

A Horizon official said the turboprop is just way better on fuel economy—as much as 30 percent—on shorter hauls. With fuel near half the cost of flying today, that 30 percent looks better and better.

MSNBC, in a propeller story in April, said “The soaring cost of fuel is rapidly reshaping the landscape for regional flights at many airlines, leading to interest in a new generation of turboprop planes.”

It's not just a U.S. phenomenon. In Germany, discount airline Air Berlin has opted for turboprops on shorter flights. SAS Scandinavian Air has bought a clutch of them as well.

One of the beneficiaries of the trend is Bombardier, the Canadian company that makes the Q-400.

Bombardier is already an active player in the Hawaiian inter-island market.

It makes the planes Island Air flies. These 37-seat turboprops are Dash 8 100 and 200 models, also known as deHavilland 100 and 200s. The newest version of the Dash planes are called the Q (for quiet) series. The Q400 is one of these, with passenger capacities from 70 to 78 and a top speed of about 425 miles an hour.

Bombardier also makes the Canadair regional jets flown by go! Airlines in the Islands.

Bombardier reports strong sales for its turboprop planes.

When Hawai'i interisland airlines switched from props to jets close to half a century ago, they created a travel scenario that was marginally faster, flew higher and quieter and was considerably sexier, but used a lot more fuel per seat flown.

In those days, fuel was cheap and there were no concerns about carbon dioxide in the environment.

Since that time, jets have achieved stunning improvements in fuel efficiency—from 55 to 70 percent, depending on which of the early jets is used as a baseline.

Most of that improvement—nearly three-quarters of it--has come from more efficient engines—producing more thrust with less kerosene. A significant improvement also comes from more aerodynamic shapes of aircraft.

But with all that improvement, big jets have only recently surpassed the fuel efficiency of the piston engine propellor airplanes of the 1950s.

And most of that gain has been on longer-haul flights. It still takes a lot of fuel to get a jet plane off the ground and up to cruising altitude, and that's a significant part of most short inter-island hops.

And why would airlines go back from jets to props? Because there could come a point at which they'll have to, in order to keep people flying.

“Every time the price of fuel increases the cost of a ticket by a dollar, a percentage of travelers opt not to fly,” said Richard Crum, president of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives.

For more on air travel and fuel prices see:

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Friday, June 27, 2008

A bogland fence at Kanaele, Kaua'i

A fence more than a mile long encloses a botanical wonderland of mid-elevation Kaua'i—the Kanaele Bog, on the slopes above Kalāheo, where rainfall averages 160 inches a year.

(Image: The carniverous sundew mikinalo, which captures insects with the sticky droplets that sit on the end of its leaf hairs. Credit: John De Mello.)

Perhaps the most impressive of the plants protected by the fence is the amazing Lobelia kauaensis, which sends up a dense stalk of blooms that are white with purple streaks.

The wet Kanaele flatland lies at 2,100 feet above sea level—just half the elevation of the great Alaka'i Swamp's boglands, but still in the misty lands high above most human habitation.

Like Alaka'i, the bog contains a unique assemblage of dwarfed trees, compact sedges, intriguing carniverous sundews and more. But the mix of plants is quite different from Alaka'i.

“Kanaele is a natural treasure. Nothing like it exists anywhere on the planet,” said Trae Menard, director of the Kaua'i program for The Nature Conservancy of Hawai'i. He called the 6,552-foot fence, which protects 80 acres, a “major conservation milestone.”

The Nature Conservancy set up the fence to keep feral pigs from digging up the area. Conservancy crews will now work within the fence to remove alien plants as they appear, before moving to further conservation work.

“The fence is really just the first step to effective bog conservation. The next steps entail weed control. With the bog protected from pigs and weeds, rare plant reintroduction can then take place to build more robust populations,” Menard said.

The land belongs to Alexander & Baldwin, which issued the conservancy a management agreement in 2003. The fence itself, costing $149,000, was a project of the conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, A&B's McBryde Sugar Co. and other private donors. It was built by Remote Fencing Outfitters.

Says the Conservancy about bogs:

“A bog is a special class of wetland maintained by high rainfall or groundwater levels. The soil is shallow, poorly drained, acidic peat (partially decomposed vegetation). Plants found within bogs are severely stunted. The challenging water-saturated, acidic conditions result in special bog-adapted plants that can exist in no other habitat. These signature bog plants distinguish Hawaiian bogs from other wetlands.”

For more on The Nature Conservancy's projects, see

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Horses, carriages, and a governor's ride

At the risk of beating a horse that's already taken plenty of abuse, Raising Islands will weigh in on the Hawai'i Governor's decision to lease a new vehicle.

And the decision by her administration to lease one of the most energy inefficient vehicles on the market. Her 2008 Infiniti QX56, at 12 miles to the gallon, requires twice as much gasoline to go a mile as the average car in the United States. It takes nearly three times the fuel of the average car in Europe. And it takes four times what Toyota's Prius hybrid gets.

This is all surprising, ultimately, because the governor has good instincts on energy in other areas. She has, in both words and actions, promoted an aggressive policy of moving Hawai'i off its dependence on oil.

Gov. Linda Lingle has worked with the federal government to promote wind research in conjunction with the National Renewable Energy Lab. Also, in a well-publicized agreement, she signed on with the feds, utilities and others to modernize Maui's electrical grid. She signed a bill to ease the way for biofuel farmers seeking access to state lands.

In perhaps the biggest move, she announced early this year the Hawai'i Clean Energy Initiative, a collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy to move Hawai'i from an overwhelming dependence on imported oil for its energy to attain a goal of, by 2030, getting 70 percent from renewables—including wind, sun, ocean, geothermal, and bioenergy – to supply 70 percent or more of Hawai‘i’s energy needs by 2030.

“This innovative, unprecedented partnership builds on the progress the state has made to increase energy independence by decreasing Hawai’i’s reliance on imported oil. Our islands’ abundant natural sources of energy, combined with the considerable capabilities of the Department of Energy will help Hawai‘i lead America in utilizing clean, renewable energy technologies,” she said at the time.

After all that sweetness and renewable light comes the debacle over her official car.

Someone selected for the governor—one must assume it wasn't her, although she has not repudiated the choice—one of the most gas guzzling cars available on the market.

Rather than making a statement for efficiency, or even getting something that gets somewhere close to average U.S. fuel efficiency, Lingle's car is a lumbering dinosaur, of the kind much of the world is abandoning.

The 2008 Infiniti QX56 was selected to replace her 2004 Ford Expedition.

The Infiniti, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, gets 12 miles a gallon in the city and 17 to 18 on the highway, depending on the car's configuration. Figures on the DOE website indicate that's actually WORSE than the mileage of the old Ford Expedition—which is listed at 13 city.

Her staff, according to media accounts, said they selected the big Infiniti in part because its lease price was two-thirds that of a hybrid. One must wonder what hybrid they were pricing.

Yahoo Autos says the Infiniti's manufacturer's suggested retail price is $55,550 for the four-wheel-drive model.

The Ford Escape—a smaller car, a hybrid, but still an SUV—is well under $30,000. The Prius, of course, is less than $25,000. Both get multiples of the Infiniti's mileage.

The Chevy Tahoe hybrid, which is monster-sized like the Infiniti, gets 20 miles to the gallon, and costs less than the Infiniti—the MSRP is $52,395.

Let's go to the outer edge of fuel economy—the Hummer. The top listed MSRP for Hummer H3 is $38,560. The H3 gets 14 and 18—better mileage in the city than the Infiniti, and it's significantly cheaper.

Who knows what's going on with this decision? It doesn't seem to match Gov. Lingle's message. That said, we can perhaps set this issue aside as an unfortunate lapse, and move forward on the larger issue of more energy self-sufficiency for Hawai'i.

In the words of Gov. Lingle's official website: “Hawai‘i’s energy paradigm must fundamentally change, and it must be an urgent, rapid transformation. With each passing day, energy independence becomes a more critical issue for our environment, economy and security.”

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Flying on weed: algae biofuels in airlines

More airlines appear to be banking on algae as a possible source for jet fuel in a world of oil shortage or impossibly high oil prices.

(Image: An algae cocktail.)

Aircraft manufacturer Boeing is a major player in the new Algal Biomass Organization, whose motto is “Algae for Energy.” See for more. Air New Zealand, Continental and Virgin Atlantic have all joined up.

Algae appears to be turning into the next hot topic in the fuel world (previous hot topics: hydrogen, corn ethanol). See and

In Hawai'i, Cellana is a join venture of Royal Dutch Shell and HR Biopetroleum, which are working on the technology of making biofuel from algae at the Hawai'i Natural Energy Lab.

Dutch airline KLM has announced plans to begin testing algae biofuel in its planes. Virgin Atlantic has already flown a flight using a mix of regular jet fuel and biofuel.

What's so special about algae? Here's what Algal Biomass Organization has to say:

“Renewable Fuels: Algae are an ideal low cost, renewable and environmentally progressive raw material that can be converted into biofuels. They can grow rapidly (doubling in biomass in as little as a few hours), require limited nutrients, and can annually deliver up to 2,000–5,000 gallons of fuel per acre of non-arable land.

“Environment: Algae do not require fresh water to thrive and so they will not compete for limited supplies of fresh water. In addition, they can also be used to clean wastewater and to recycle greenhouse gases such as CO2, NOx and SOx. As the algae grow, they can be harvested and converted to next- generation biofuels.

“Economic Development: As developing nations continue to look for ways to spur economic development, algae-based industries can be a central part of an overall strategy. Many developing nations currently import nearly 100 percent of their fuel. An algae-based energy strategy provides a way to either reduce oil import costs, create fuel/feedstock export revenue, or both without competing with food crops.”

The other thing that makes algae biofuel attractive continues to be the price of petroleum. At this writing, crude prices stood at $133.81 a barrel.

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Friday, June 20, 2008

Sea levels rising faster than thought

In Hawai'i, we know sea levels are rising.

New science is suggesting they're rising faster than most scientists have predicted up to now.

In the Islands, ocean levels lapping the beaches are up more than half a foot since the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

In some areas, notably on the Big Island, they appear to be up more than that. That's because the Big Island is sinking slowly due to its vast weight, at the same time ocean surfaces are rising.

Because our lifetimes are short on a geological scale, we don't think much about the massive variability in ocean levels. But it's clear that oceans were once so low that Maui, Moloka'i, Lāna'i and Kaho'olawe were one island. There were no humans here then to name it, but today we call that Maui Nui, Big Maui.

The USGS says that just 20,000 years ago, when glaciers were at their peak, oceans were nearly 400 feet lower than they are now. (See

At times between glacier eras, sea levels were 10 to 60 feet higher than now.

The agency reports that if every glacier in the world melted—an unlikely occurrence—oceans would rise 80 feet.

Ocean scientists have been reporting for some time that the average rise in sea levels for the past century or more has been 1 to 2 millimeters per year. Over a century, that's 10 to 20 centimeters or roughly 4 to 8 inches.

Now, scientists reporting in the journal Nature say it's been going considerably faster than that in recent decades.

“Following the review of millions of ocean measurements, predominantly from expendable instruments probing the upper 700 metres of the ocean, we were able to more accurately estimate upper-ocean warming, and the related thermal expansion and sea-level rise. We show that the rate of ocean warming from 1961 to 2003 is about 50 per cent larger than previously reported,” said weather and climate researcher Dr. Catia Domingues, of Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). She is the organization's Wealth from Oceans National Research Flagship scientist, and works with the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research.

She worked with co-authors John Church, Neil White, Peter Gleckler; Susan Wijffels, Paul Barker and Jeff Dunn, who are variously from the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research, the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystem Cooperative Research Centre and California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

So, what's going on?

The short version is this: The climate is warming. The oceans soak up 90 percent of the additional heat. Water expands as it heats. Therefore sea levels rise.

And it all appears to be happening faster now than previously guessed—and faster than the estimates of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

At the very least, this information is valuable to people making decisions about the uses of coastal lands. As an example, in Hawai'i, that would include planning for coastal highways, sewer and water lines, utility corridors and the like.

“Our results are important for the climate modelling community because they boost confidence in the climate models used for projections of global sea-level rise resulting from the accumulation of heat in the oceans. These projections will, in turn, assist in planning to minimise the impacts and in developing adaptation strategies,” Domingues said in a CSIRO news release. (

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Honda shipping hydrogen car this summer

Honda is getting ready to market a hydrogen fuel cell car in the United States, but it is unlikely to find a parking spot in Hawai'i, if only because of a lack of hydrogen fueling stations.

That could change in time, so it pays to pay attention to the technology.

(Image: The Honda FCX Clarity. Credit: Honda. For more, see

The car is the Honda FCX Clarity, and it will be available for lease at $600 a month. It is expected to be available in limited numbers in California this summer. Honda selected lessors who live near the existing California hydrogen fuel stations. The car is not being offered for outright sale.

The Clarity is being called a zero emissions car, although it isn't, really. It has emissions, but its emissions are just water.

Honda got the first gas-electric hybrid car into the U.S. market, but Toyota's Prius became the hot car in that category. With Clarity, Honda is once again first, and time will tell whether it will hold the lead against competitors. This time, however, automotive writers are declaring the vehicle a winner.

This car looks like a sleek standard sedan, and it's a four-seater.

The new Clarity has all the hot stuff. Heated and cooled seats. Phone and navigation controls on the steering wheel. Satellite radio.

And instrumentation that may define the new standard. In Honda's words: “A multi-layered instrument panel floats before your eyes, and 3-D gauges stand out with the information you need. The futuristic hydrogen-consumption gauge changes color and size to reflect hydrogen consumption as your driving conditions change. During high consumption the ball becomes large and amber colored. As consumption decreases, it shrinks and turns yellow then blue.”

The front-wheel-drive car has two sources of power: a hydrogen-fueled fuel cell that produces electricity; and a lithium-ion battery pack that produces electricity. Both or either can power the Clarity's electric motor, which is the latest version of a motor technology that Honda initially developed for its EV Plus electric car. The motor is rated at 134 horsepower.

One thing: Without any combustion going on, the Clarity ought to be very quiet.

The car has a range of 280 miles on a fill-up of 4.1 kilograms (9 pounds) of compressed hydrogen at 5000 pounds per square inch.

That leaves the issue of fuel.

“Increasing the numbers of convenient hydrogen refueling options is one of the last remaining hurdles to widespread adoption of fuel cell vehicles,” Honda says on its FCX Clarity website.

One future option, for those who have a source of natural gas, might be Honda's Home Energy Station, an evolving system that both powers the family home and makes hydrogen for the car.

While the industry loudly proclaims their hydrogen vehicle is emission-free, there remains the inconvenient fact that you need to make the hydrogen, and that requires energy. Just as an emission-free electric car needs to use energy to make the electricity.

Still, Honda says it's moving in the right direction.

“CO2 emissions for a household using the Home Energy Station are 30 percent lower than those for an average household using a gasoline-engine car and commercial electricity and heat.”

The Home Energy Station is still experimental. Learn more here:

The site includes a conceptual diagram of a solar-powered Home Energy Station, which would take fossil fuels out of the equation.

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Monday, June 16, 2008

Solar probe: into the sun for science

NASA has announced plans to send a spacecraft on repeated forays into the sun.

How are they going to keep it from burning up?

They're going at night.

(Image: false color photo of the sun from the Extreme ultraviolet Imaging Telescope, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.)

Nah. Couldn't resist, but on the exceedingly slim chance anyone bit, that's a joke.

In fact, the seven-year Solar Probe Plus mission, set to launch in 2015, will use a heavily insulated spacecraft full of instrumentation. It will make repeated passes through the Sun's corona, followed by swings around Venus to gain some gravitational slingshot oomph.

The Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Lab will design and build the spacecraft. Appropriately, it will use solar panels for its energy, but they'll be liquid cooled, and will retract when it gets too intense out there. The probe will be designed with a carbon composite shield to handle up to 1400 degrees Centigrade. That's significantly hotter than your standard pizza oven, and also hotter than most electronics are made to handle.

At its closest, the probe should be nine times the radius of the sun from the surface—a little more than 4 million miles.

Two key questions about the sun need to be answered, NASA says.

One is why does the temperature rise when you move away from the sun. Another: Where is the start of the solar wind, which sends charged particles blasting through the solar system. It doesn't seem to be actively blowing coherently when you get near the sun.

University of Hawai'i solar astronomer Shadia Habbal, who works at the university's Institute for Astronomy, has been involved in the planning for the mission. Her particular interest, she said, is the source of the solar wind—how it goes from apparently being disorganized near the sun to flowing in a much more organized fashion as it moves out among the planets.

According to NASA's Solar Probe Science and Technology Definition Team Report:

“Solar Probe will be the first spacecraft to venture into the unexplored inner reaches of the heliosphere where the solar wind is born. Through high-cadence in-situ measurements of the solar wind plasma, energetic particles, and fields... supplemented by coronal and photospheric imaging, Solar Probe will provide the data needed to solve, finally, the twin mysteries of coronal heating and solar wind acceleration.”

To learn more about the solar probe, see

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Algae: the fuel of the future

How many ways can algae be used to replace petroleum?

Lots of them, clearly.

(Image: An algae cocktail--dipped from a fishpond.)

For centuries—perhaps millenia—humans have been dragging kelp and other seaweeds out of the ocean and spreading them on fields as fertilizer. Long before the manufacture of chemical fertilizers that require vast inputs of energy.

But among the newer uses of algae are to actually create fuel rather than to supplant it.

Research teams across the globe are experimenting with the development of industrial-scale growing of varieties of algae that can be converted into a vegetable oil product—for use as biodiesel.

Royal Dutch Shell and HR Biopetroleum have formed a joint venture, Cellana, to develop this sort of fuel.

Says the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy news site: “Algae grow rapidly and can have a high percentage of lipids, or oils. They can double their mass several times a day and produce at least 15 times more oil per acre than alternatives such as rapeseed, palms, soybeans, or jatropha. Moreover, algae-growing facilities can be built on coastal land unsuitable for conventional agriculture.”

The work will be done at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai'i on the Kona coast.

“The Cellana facility will grow only non-genetically modified, marine microalgae species in open-air ponds using proprietary technology. It will also use bottled carbon dioxide to test the algae's ability to capture carbon,” EERE says.

Then there's another company, Algenol, that says it will make ethanol from algae. Among the benefits of this process over others, says the company website,

1. Does NOT require food based feedstocks like corn or sugarcane.
2. Does NOT require harvesting.
3. Does NOT require fossil fuel based fertilizers.
4. Does NOT require fresh water.
5. Does NOT require large amounts of fossil fuel.
6. Does NOT require arable land.
7. Does use desert land and marginal land.
8. Does make fresh water from seawater during the process.
9. Does use treated manure instead of fossil fuel based fertilizers.
10. Does have an energy balance over 8 : 1 (energy output : fossil fuel input).

Is that not enough for you? A Berkeley biologist, Anastasios Melis (, is working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to develop techniques to get hydrogen out of algae—see

It turns out that some algae and blue-green algae (cyanobacteria—not really algae) dump hydrogen as a waste product.

It seems that this particular technology has an extensive research road before it's ready for prime time, but clearly, we'll be hearing lots more about algae in fuel discussions over time.

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Monday, June 9, 2008

False killer whales are kama'āina, too

Among the neighbors most of Hawai'i didn't know about is an island community of false killer whales.

After reviewing surveys and photographs dating from 1986 to 2007, a research team was able to conclude that many individuals were being resighted repeatedly over long periods.

(Image: A leaping false killer whale. Credit: Robin W. Baird, Cascadia Research Collective.)

“Individuals were resighted up to 20.1 years after first being documented, showing long-term fidelity to the islands,” said the paper “False killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) around the main Hawaiian Islands: Long-term site fidelity, inter-island movements and association patterns,” published in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

The crowd of researchers on the paper includes lead author Robin Baird and Gregory Schorr of the Cascadia Research Collective, Antoinette Gorgone and Jay Barlow of NOAA's Southeast Fisheries Science Center, Daniel McSweeney and Daniel Webster of the Big Island's Wild Whale Research Foundation, Dan Salden or the Hawai'i Whale Research Foundation, Mark Deakos of the Maui-based Hawai'i Association for Marine Education and Research, Allan Ligon of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, and Sabre Mahaffy of Cascadia and Wild Whale.

The false killer whale is so seldom seen that researchers generally have not focused on the species—largely because getting enough sightings is so cost and time prohibitive. The Baird team kept track of the animals while researching other whales, until it had enough data for a research paper.

As the photos and reports built up, the researchers identified individual whales by scars, deformations and a range of other physical characteristics. They were able to identify about 150 unique individual whales. And more than half of them were seen on more than one occasion—often in more than one year.

“Such evidence implies both that the population of false killer whales around the main Hawaiian Islands is relatively small, and that individuals show considerably fidelity to the islands. Resightings of individuals spanned the entire 21-year duration of our study, indicating that such fidelity is table over periods of many years,” the paper says.

False killer whales seem to readily move up and down the island chain. The same ones seen off O'ahu are also seen off the Big Island. Genetic studies conducted previously suggest the Hawaiian whales are a distinct genetic group from those elsewhere in the tropical Pacific.

“False killer whales around the main Hawaiian Islands clearly form a distinct, island-associated population,” the paper says.

“It appears that false killer whales are another of the growing list of pelagic cetacean species that can form strong associations with island ecosystems,and local populations of these species can essentially become island specialists,” it says.

False killer whales are large, long-lived dolphins, with males capable of growing to nearly 20 feet and females to 15 or so feet in length. (See the National Marine Fisheries Service site on the species at

They feed on deep-ocean fish like mahimahi, tuna and billfish. They sometimes carry food long distances, and share their food with others of their group. Sometimes they are caught in fishing gear.

They are assumed to have strong relationship bonds, since an entire group will strand when one whale is in trouble, and can be reluctant to abandon that individual and return to sea.

For more information, see Cascadia Research's website,

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Sunday, June 8, 2008

X Prize seeks the 100 mpg four-seater automobile

If you end up driving a 100-miles-per-gallon sedan in the next few years, you might be able to thank the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize.

The contest has a $10 million prize for the company or team that builds vehicles that meet a series of criteria, including getting at least 100 miles to the gallon or its equivalent in other forms of energy.

(Image: The Tata Nano, a two-cyclinder model described as the world's cheapest car. To be marketed in India late this year. Although this car probably won't meet the requirements of the X Prize, Tata Motors has announced it will compete for the Automotive X Prize. Tata Motors Photo.)

What the contest doesn't do is mandate a technology. Thus, the car that wins could be electric, hybrid, compressed air, straight gasoline, or something entirely different. Learn more about the prize at

The prize has generated a lot of interest. In January there were 50 entrants, then 60, and there are now 70 teams from 12 countries. Electric seems to be the leading contender at present.

India's Tata Motors is the most recent entrant. An innovative company, they're the folks with the patent on the MDI compressed air car, and who this year announced plans to build the world's cheapest car, a $2,500 sedan called the Tata Nano.

They key to the new prize is that it will require some kind of technological leap. No production vehicle is currently anywhere close to meeting the X Prize requirements.

Other standards, according to the X Prize draft guidelines, are these.

The car needs to meet strict emissions standards, meaning it can't be energy-efficient but polluting. The limit is 200 grams of carbon dioxide per mile.

It needs to have at least four wheels and seat at least four people. (That's for X Prize's Mainstream Class. An Alternative Class can seat two or more and has no limit on number of wheels.)

Cars must have an enclosed cabin (although convertibles are permitted), windshield wipers, seat belts, standard gauges, heater, air conditioning. They need to meet U.S. safety standards—meaning they can legally be sold for highway use in this country—as well as meeting standards in other nations.

Automotive X Prize cars don't need to be howlers off the starting line, but they must be fast. The draft rules permit 0 to 60 acceleration in 12 seconds, but require the cars be able to reach or exceed 100 miles an hour. Recent comments suggest that top speed may be amended downward.

The cars must have a range of 200 miles before requiring refueling.

Detailed guidelines are available here: The rules, clearly, are not final, and could change over time.

The ultimate test is a pair of long-distance races during 2009 and 2010, a qualifier and a grand prize final. The winners of each will share the prize. The Mainstream Class will get ¾ of the purse and Alternative Class 1/4.

The cars will need to meet fuel efficiency and emissions standards, and if they qualify on those grounds, the fastest to the finish line will win the honors.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

See also other automotive pieces in on this website:

Friday, June 6, 2008

Unique ocean voyagers at sea in small boats

At least three small boats are plying the Pacific with environmental missions as you read this.

Two of them are single-handed efforts, the other having a two-person crew.

(Image: Rower Roz Savage in her little boat, from her website,

Here are some details on each, and where to track them.

Japan sailor Kenichi Horie, 69, is bobbing the Pacific between Hawai'i and Japan, a 4350-mile trip, aboard his boat Suntory Mermaid II. He left Honolulu March 16, 2008.

The twin-hulled vehicle has a pair of aluminum fins under the bow that convert the power of waves into forward movement. So his "engine" uses no fossil fuels.

Horie is more than three-quarters of the way to Japan. See his progress at his website,

Meanwhile, long-distance rower Roz Savage left San Francisco May 24 and is nearly two weeks into an attempt to row her aluminum boat from the West Coast to Hawai'i.

Her attempt last year was cut short when she was repeatedly rolled over in rough weather. This year her boat is outfitted with 200 pounds of lead in the keel to be more stable.

Follow her voyage on her website, where she's blogging and posting photos from sea: There's lots of environmental information on the website.

As this is written Friday afternoon (June 6, 2008) Savage is beset by a storm off the California coast.

A few hundred miles south, another unique boat is waiting out the storm in at San Nicolas Island after departing Long Beach Sunday (June 1) before heading across the ocean to Hawai'i.

This is one of the stranger boats you'll see. It is made of trash. Its hulls are constructed of 15,000 plastic bottles encased in netting. Its cockpit is an old single-engine Cessna 310 airplane body. The deck appears to be supported by a framework of old sailboat masts.

The boat's name is Junk. The crew is Marcus Eriksen and Joel Paschal. They plan to sail downwind to Hawai'i behind a big square sail, which is used. Their goal is to bring more attention to the issue of ocean pollution and marine debris.

They expect the voyage to take six weeks, which should put them in Hawai'i in mid-July. Follow Junk's progress at the blog

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Algae biofuel is airlines' new best friend.

One of the accepted truths of the alternative energy business has been that we'd always need oil to fuel big jets--but tiny algae could refute that assumption.

(Image: NASA photo of an apparent algae bloom in Canada's Lakes Winnipeg (right) and Manitoba. Credit: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC)

News reports in recent months include new efforts by at least two airlines to wean themselves of petroleum-based kerosene fuel.

And that's important for Hawai'i, where 90 percent of our energy comes from fossil fuel, and, in the words of the federal Energy Information Administration, "The transportation sector leads energy demand in Hawaii due in large part to heavy jet fuel use by military installations and commercial airlines."

Hawai'i is actively involved in the effort to produce biofuels, including ones made from algae--which are being touted as a source of jet fuel. More on that later.

In February, Virgin Atlantic flew one of its 747s from London to Amsterdam on a mix that included 20 percent biofuel mixed with petroleum jet fuel.

"It makes great business sense to investigate lower carbon alternatives to existing technologies," the airline said on its website.

More recently, the Dutch airline KLM has announced it plans test flights later this year, using biofuel made from algae. (See the Radio Netherlands report at

KLM has identified the planes it feels can move to algae-based fuel first, and it says it hopes to eventually run the entire fleet on the stuff. As with Virgin, its initial flights will use a mix of algae-based vegetable oil and petroleum-based kerosene.

In its pilot program, KLM is working with a firm called AlgaeLink (see

But there are plenty of others in the business.

See for information on GreenFuel Technologies Corp. and its efforts. One of the keys ot GreenFuel's effort it that it would pull carbon dioxide out of industrial emission stacks, converting it onsite into fuel.

"GreenFuel uses a portfolio of technologies to profitably recycle CO2 from smokestack, fermentation, and geothermal gases via naturally occurring species of algae. Algae can be converted to transportation fuels and feed ingredients or recycled back to a combustion source as biomass for power generation. Industrial facilities need no internal modifications to host a GreenFuel algae farm. In addition, the system does not require fertile land or potable water," the firm's website says.

Hawai'i's most recent involvement in algae-based fuel came late last year, when the energy firm Royal Dutch Shell announced it is collaborating with HR Biopetroleum to study growing oil-producing algae in salt-water ponds at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai'i in Kona. Their joint venture is called Cellana and Shell is the majority partner.

While there is discussion elsewhere of using algae genetically modified to improve their suitability for the production of oil, Shell says it's not going that route.

"The facility will grow only non-modified, marine microalgae species in open-air ponds using proprietary technology. Algae strains used will be indigenous to Hawaii or approved by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture. Protection of the local environment and marine ecosystem has been central to facility design. Once the algae are harvested, the vegetable oil will be extracted. The facility’s small production volumes will be used for testing," Shell said in a press release.

Scientists will work with the program to identify those microalgae species that produce the most oil.

“HR Biopetroleum’s proven technology provides a solid platform for commercial development and potential deployment worldwide. Shell’s expertise and commitment to next generation biofuels complements our own strengths, and makes this a truly collaborative partnership," said Mark Huntley, HR Biopetroleum Chief Science Officer, in the press release.

But none of this is really new. The U.S. Department of Energy has been researching biofuel from algae since the 1970s. Here is a report on that research:

One of the amusing points of this 1998 report is that it suggests algae-biofuel doesn't make economic sense because it would be two to three times the cost of petroeum. However, that was written when oil was selling at between $20 and $30 a barrel.

For airlines, algae biofuel provides a way to be greener--to reduce an airline's carbon footprint--but it might also be cheaper than oil, which at this writing stood at $126 a barrel.

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

What do pizza and brown dwarfs have in common?

If you brought a pizza to the surface of the sun, it would of course burn to a crisp.

But a brown dwarf could cook it perfectly, browning the edges of the crust, melting the cheese.

(Photo: Infrared image of the binary methane brown dwarfs known as 2MASS 1534-2952AB. Credit: Dr. Michael Liu, Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii.)

Brown dwarfs are that class in the continuum of objects that falls somewhere between stars like our sun and the gas giant planets like Jupiter.

And in a remarkable piece of work, researchers at the University of Hawai'i Institute for Astronomy and the University of Sydney have managed to calculate the mass of two pairs of brown dwarfs. (For details, see

They did it using 17th Century astronomy Johannes Kepler's determination that the mass of a paired, or binary, object could be determined if you knew the sized of the orbit and the precise time it takes for the objects to complete an orbit of each other.

That, plus incredibly detailed observations using both the Keck Telescope on Mauna Kea and the Hubble Space Telescope.

The team included Michael Liu and Trent J. Dupuy of the University of Hawai'i and Michael J. Ireland of the University of Sydney.

Brown dwarfs are generally bigger than planets and smaller than suns. They're hot, but not nearly as hot as the roughly 10,000-degrees of the sun. They're closer to the range of 800 degrees Fahrenheit—like a nice, hot pizza oven.

Technically, brown dwarfs are big objects smaller than 7 percent the mass of the sun. Like gas giant planets, they lack the necessary mass to launch nuclear fusion, and thus can't generate their own heat.

The Liu team studied two separate brown dwarf pairs, and was able to calculate that the mass of one pair (2MASS 1534-2952AB) is about 6 percent of the mass of the sun, and the mass of the other (HD 130948BC) is about 11 percent that of the sun.

That's still big. Jupiter is our solar system's biggest planet, and each of the planets in the smaller of the two pairs is still 30 times the mass of Jupiter.

Astronomers have long been able to calculate temperatures, distance and brightness of distant objects. A key value of this work, Liu said, is that it helps correct theoretical calculations of the mass of objects in space.

"Mass is the fundamental parameter that governs the life-history of a free-floating object...After weighing these tiny, dim, cold objects, we have confirmed that the theoretical predictions are mostly correct, but not entirely so,” he said.

One of the things that made the calculations possible is the adaptive optics on the Keck II telescope, which allows astronomers to correct for distortions of the Earth's atmosphere, and to obtain amazingly clear images of very distant objects.

"These are very challenging measurements, because brown dwarf binaries have tiny separations on the sky and orbit each other very slowly. We needed to obtain the sharpest measurements that are possible with current telescopes to precisely monitor their motion," Dupuy said.

The researchers unearthed a couple of new mysteries. Among them: temperature and energy output calculations for the two binaries don't match the theories of what they should be.

"These findings will be a challenge for the theorists, and we are inspired to measure the masses of more brown dwarfs in the coming years to better understand the problem."

The team's research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Mikulina: Solar power sensible, disruptive

What's the role for residential solar power—photovoltaics or PV—in Hawai'i?

Substantial, writes Sierra Club Hawai'i chief Jeff Mikulina, on the Microsoft Environment website.

(Photo: Some of the cells on elderly photovoltaic panel. For Mikulina's article, see

There remain some problems. It's still not cheap. And it's intermittent—it only makes power when the sun shines.

But you might be even more put off if today someone suggested this as a new technology: You could put in a fossil fuel generator and that it would require you hauling toxic, explosive gasoline to it several times monthly.

Viewed together, you might be less dismayed by a technology that only required batteries or a link to the power grid.

Indeed, Mikulina cites the ready “local” availability of solar power as a key benefit.

“An average household in Hawaii can decrease their carbon emissions by about seven tons annually when compared with conventional fossil fuel grid. Power from PV is generated locally, so PV users are no longer tethered to oil wells located thousands of miles away,” he writes.

In fact, the sun is dumping all that power on your rooftop right now, and it's going to waste.

“With hundreds of thousands of empty rooftops facing the sun in Hawaii, distributed PV is perfectly positioned to be game-changing technology that overturns the current model of producing electricity,” he writes.

Some folks are converting to solar now, either storing the energy in their own battery banks or hooking up to the grid through a net metering system. Net metering is where you supply power to the grid when you're producing more energy than you use, and then pull power off the grid when (in the case of solar) the sun isn't shining.

To most efficiently use a system in which many residents both produce and consume power, the grid itself needs an upgrade—so it is smart enough to sense what's going on, to send and receive messages from its customers, to better manage its ebb and flow of energy.

“Electric utilities would transform their business model from power producing to power distributing, much like the telecommunication sector. This distributed model of community-scaled power generation and storage would also fulfill Thomas Edison’s original vision for electricity—in the 1880s he forecast a power plant in every community,” Mikulina writes.

Mikulina has long been a proponent of solar power. In fact, he wrote his master's degree thesis on the subject last year.

He surveyed Hawai'i residents about their views on solar power.

Among the other key indicators of potential solar adopters: pro-environmental views, participation in environmental activities, a desire for self-sufficiency, and holding the belief that electricity costs are going to keep going up.

Writes Mikulina in his thesis: “Clearly, there are many ways to foster interest in (grid-tied photovoltaic) adoption. But the strongest drivers appear to be perceived economic relative advantage and the belief that (grid-tied photovoltaic) is effective in satisfying environmental concern.”

In his thesis, he argues that residential photovoltaic systems, hooked up to the community electricity grid, is a key component of Hawai'i's energy future.

“Grid-tied residential photovoltaic's minimal environmental impact, rapidly decreasing cost, and renewable fuel source may position it as the disruptive energy technology of the 21st century,” Mikulina writes.

“With its high electricity prices, near-complete dependence on imported oil for energy, and abundant sunlight, Hawai'i is poised to be a leader in adopting this ancient source of power, hastening the day when 'alternative energy' is simply 'energy.'”

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Monday, June 2, 2008

Rats redate Aotearoa (New Zealand) occupation

Rats are helping scientists rethink the first appearance of humans in New Zealand, and that work is causing them to rethink Polynesian migrations.

The new work looks at evidence of Polynesian rats—radiocarbon dating both rat bones and gnawed seeds. It suggests that the first population—at least by rats—of both North Island and South Island New Zealand occurred from 1280 to 1300 AD.

(Photo: A rat-gnawed seed--in this case a macadamia nut eaten by a black rat.)

New Zealand has long been considered the most recently inhabited major island group of Polynesia, but most dates have placed that initial habitation several hundred years earlier.

One problem with those earliest estimates for human habitation has been that there was little archaeological evidence for them. The assumption of archaeologists was that this was because it took a few hundred years for human populations to build up to the point at which they would be “visible” to archaeological investigation.

It has long been known that Polynesian voyaging canoes carried rats. Theories differ as to whether they were carried accidentally, for food or for some other purpose, but it is clear that everywhere Polynesians arrived, rats arrived as well. Furthermore, rats reproduce must faster than humans, and quickly make impacts on the environment.

The new work was published today (June 2, 2008) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers Janet Wilmshurst of Landcare Research in New Zealand, Atholl Anderson of Australian National University, Thomas Higham of Oxford University in the United Kingdom and Trevor Worthy of the University of Adelaide in Australia.

They note that many early dates—of rat bones and other evidence of human activity—have been based on flawed radiocarbon dates. In the latest work, the researchers redated previous rat bone samples, and also compared their results with other evidence—notably seed cases that contain the clear imprints of rat teeth in gnawing patterns.

And the new rat information coincides well with other evidence of human presence.

“There is now excellent agreement between the ages of the earliest archaeological sites and the earliest-dated evidence for widespread deforestation, massive megafaunal extinctions,the decline of marine mammal populations and rat predation of seeds and invertebrates,” the paper says.

Rat evidence in the past couple of years has also been used to redate other islands' habitation—notably Rapa Nui or Easter Island. University of Hawai'i archaeologist Terry Hunt found that gnawed seeds and other data suggest the initial occupation of Rapa Nui was about 1200 AD—also several hundred years later than was earlier believed.

“Everything is turning out later than we thought,” Hunt said.

He said both Rapa Nui and Aotearoa (New Zealand) were at the margins of Polynesia and appear to have been occupied near the end of the period of active Polynesian migration. Hunt said there appears to have been a very active period of open-ocean voyaging and discovery starting around about a millenium ago.

“Around 1000 AD people are moving rapidly through eastern Polynesia and out to the margins,” he said. The islands of Rapa and Mangareva appear to have been populated about 1100, and may have been springboard to the occupation of Rapa Nui.

New Zealand's later population appears also to have come from somewhere in eastern Polynesia, but it is difficult to say exactly whence its settlers came. Perhaps Tahiti or the southern Cook Islands, Hunt said.

By contrast with these areas, Hawai'i, although it is extremely isolated, appears to have been populated quite early in the eastern Polynesian migrations.

“Hawai'i is actively settled quite early—as if it was in the locale of Tahiti” rather than more than 2,000 miles away, Hunt said. Modern occupation dates for Hawai'i fall in the neighborhood of 800 or 900 AD.

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate