An unlikely transformative genius

If you watched “60 Minutes” on CBS last night, you may have seen the interview with Lesley Stahl and a game changing self-made scientist named Marshall Medoff. This 81 year-old, eccentric inventor has researched and created a breakthrough idea that will help move the dial on biomass energy, plastics and even sugar. What you might ask?

Medoff has succeeded in the release of cellulose that is ingrained in all plant products in an elegant fashion. Where MIT and others have failed to cost effectively do so, he has developed the concept of using an electron beam accelerator to blast the cellulose out of the plant materials. This is fascinating enough, but this man is a self-taught scientist. And, to add to the story even more, he came to the idea at Walden Pond in Massachusetts, where he lives nearby. What a great place to think of how to unleash the power of plants.

Yet, Medoff’s invention is beyond the idea stage. Investors are so enthralled, they have invested in his company called Xyleco and there is a facility in Moss Lake, WA in production. This place employs trained and educated chemical scientists and engineers. He also has a testing facility in Massachusetts near where he lives, employing many scientists from MIT and elsewhere.

On his Board of Directors are Bob Armstrong, the former head of MIT’s chemistry department and Steven Chu, the former Director of Energy under President Obama, and several other known advisors, including John Jennings, the former CEO of Shell. They all claim this man is an Edison-like genius, who is a tad eccentric. And, as Armstrong pointed out MIT and others have failed to do what he has done.

These Board members echo his enthusiasm to make a 30% or so dent in the energy business with a 77% more efficient biomass fuel than ethanol. Also, with petroleum-based plastic a huge issue on the environment, one of his scientists demonstrated a plant-based plastic that can have a planned disintegration at the end of its usefulness.  And, if that were not enough, a sugar byproduct called xylose, or wood sugar, is less in calories and has a smaller impact on teeth.

If it were April Fool’s Day, this would seem like a great story to fool people with. The exciting part is Medoff is legitimate. A key side bar is fifteen years ago, he decided to work on this problem to fight climate change. So, he read everything on the subject. And, then started putting together ideas and patents. One of his Board members said this eccentric old man had the confidence that he could do this. That can-do attitude is part of a genius’ make-up.

https://www.localbuzzot.com/2019/01/07/marshall-medoff-the-unlikely-eccentric-inventor-turning-inedible-plant-life-into-fuel-60-minutes/

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Calm before the storm

Sitting four hours inland in North Carolina, we are in a holding pattern with Hurricane Florence. She will hit hard and large on the Carolinas coast and may linger over the eastern parts of the two states dumping a lot of water which will overwhelm the water systems. In Charlotte, we are as yet unaware what kind of storm effect we will get and may not know for a few days, but the current model shows us on the north side of the eye, exposed to winds and rain.

Best wishes for all, but especially those closer to the shore. I commend the efforts to keep us informed and get us prepared. We should all batten down the hatches, ready our homes, and leave, if needed and required. But, the recovery will be an elongated effort as it has been with previous hurricanes.

With this said, our country could be doing a lot more to address these emergencies. We could fund FEMA through the normal budget and not have to rely on event funding. A former FEMA person said we rely too heavily on an on call work force, especially when multiple disasters hit. Last year’s multiple hurricanes proved problematic and it showed, especially in Puerto Rico. There is a metaphor in Puerto Rico that still exists one year later of hundreds of unopened crates of water sitting on a runway.

We could also recognize what NOAA, Union of Concerned Scientists, United Nations and climate scientists know. Sea rise and warmer oceans due to climate change are creating more and dangerous hurricanes that hit shore from a higher vantage point. One scientist said it is like dunking a basketball off an elevated court. It is easier to do damage. This is especially true with beach erosion.

The term which will and should get more air time is “sunny day flooding.” This represents the increasing number of days that ocean tides are washing into coastal city streets. We must do more about this increasingly costly problem. Hurricanes only make this problem worse as they lay bare already weakened areas.

So, while we brace for Florence, let’s think about how we can plan even more proactively. And, please think good thoughts for those in harm’s way.

What is this 314 Action?

You do not have to be an engineer to know that 314 with a decimal added after the three is Pi. So, it should not be a surprise to learn that 314 Action has something to do with math or science. What it represents is an attempt to get more scientists elected to office. Their mission statement is below.

“314 Action was founded by members of the STEM community, grassroots supporters and political activists who believe in science. We are committed to electing more STEM candidates to office, advocating for evidence-based policy solutions to issues like climate change, and fighting the Trump administration’s attacks on science.

Why ‘314 Action’? Because Pi is everywhere. It’s the most widely known mathematical ratio both inside and out of the scientific community. It is used in virtually everything we encounter in our daily lives — and like Pi, science is all around us. Too often, legislators choose to ignore science in favor of convenient beliefs or intuition. We are committed to electing more leaders who will use their training as STEM professionals to influence policy-making. Evidence-based reasoning should be the foundation of legislation related to issues like climate change, and gun violence.

314 Action is also devoted to aggressively advocating for a pro-science agenda in Washington, D.C. and in local and state legislatures. We will leverage our network of pro-science advocates to organize and effect change in areas where science is being maligned or disputed. As a unified STEM and pro-science community, we can combat the all-too-common attacks on basic scientific understanding.”

It greatly troubles me that our country is in desperate need of more STEM education and professionals. Yet, the current party in power denigrates scientists who are not supportive of their recommendations. That is more than a tad hypocritical. Under Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency has done a great deal to forget the word “Protection” in its name. Several judges have admonished Pruitt’s team efforts for the EPA’s lack of homework and data behind its recommendations. This will likely continue under his successor.

Science matters. Data matters. Scientists endeavor to get it right. They question themselves regarding the veracity of their research and find fault when shortcuts to research were taken. I was listening to NPR earlier this week about the efforts journalists go through to get it right. One said, when you read a source, look how they handle mistakes. Do the admit, correct and make visible the mistakes? If they don’t, find another source. Scientists are like that. I think we could use more than a few in our legislature and other offices.

Below, is a link to their endorsed scientist candidates. This is rather refreshing.

http://www.314action.org/endorsed-candidates-1/

Oyster shells have a beneficial shelf life

Oysters have long been hailed to be an aphrodisiac. That may be the case, but their shells have been quite useful in protecting and recreating shoreline. They have a beneficial effect long after their alleged aphrodisiac influence. How so?

Per a PBS Newshour news report in June, rather than building a sea wall, there are several locations in Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina, et al that are using mesh bagged oyster shells to stack in the water near the shores of bays, coves and inlets. They create an organic wall that facilitates the growth of marsh grasses between the land and barrier. Living organisms can be found in the water such as various crabs and fishes. The natural growth of the marsh grasses and collected mud is noticeable even after one year.

From a cost standpoint, one family noted the cost differential is significant. The oyster shells are 1/4 of the cost of the wall ($3,000 vs $12,000) on their property. Plus, the wall needs to be replaced at some point, while the oyster shells do not.The word has gotten out, so now there is a waiting list for the oyster shells in these areas.

Rebuilding the natural marshes and wetlands are tactics to combat the loss of shoreline due to climate change. These marshes provide a needed natural barrier or buffer as hurricanes hit land and offer oxygen to combat carbon build up.

Per a “Scientfic American” article in April, 2017, “Coastal wetlands are among the best marine ecosystems to fight climate change, new research confirms. A study published this week in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment compared the carbon sequestration potential of a handful of marine ecosystems and found that mangroves, salt marshes and seagrass meadows have the greatest impact on climate change.”

This is another reason to order oysters on the half shell. But, ask the restaurant what they are doing with the shells. Make them aware of this terrific use if they are not. It is truly an organically utile idea, aphrodisiac or not.

 

 

The weather outside is frightful

The weather outside is frightful. Inside it’s so delightful. And, since we’ve no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let is snow.

Please think good thoughts for those who are exposed to the severe cold and wintry precipitation. May they stay warm and travel safely if they must. We will be in the teens here over several nights, but our Minnesota based friend, Hugh, said he awoke to 19 below, Fahrenheit. Yikes!

I also want to emphasize the word “weather.” The US President either purposefully or unknowingly confused climate with weather. If purposeful, his intent was to play up to the “climate change is hoax” crowd among his followers. Unfortunately, this becomes an annual confusion effort which is either cynical of filled with malintent. Someone needs to tell the President that it is summer time in the Southern Hemisphere and 2017 set a new record for average heat around the globe. A few days of frigid weather in December north of the equator and June south of the equator will not alter that fact.

It would be nice if the President did not forsake the US global standing and stay engaged as a leader on climate change efforts. We have some of the leading climate scientists and data in the world. We are also one of the two biggest carbon emitters. Fortunately, other state, city and business leaders will keep the US moving forward leveraging the many good efforts.

Have a wonderful 2018. Let’s move this ball forward. Our children and their children need us to.

We measure environmental impact on adults, not kids

I have written several times about Sandra Steingraber. Who is she, you may ask? She is a biologist, ecologist, author and environmental advocate. Steingraber has spoken in front of the United Nations, the European Parliament and US Congress on the impact of chemicals on our environment and people.

Steingraber is a bladder cancer survivor which led her to her passionate advocacy. Bladder cancer is a bellweather cancer, meaning it is almost always caused by environmental toxins. Her home was in proximity to several chemical plants. In addition, her siblings and nearby cousins also had various cancers, including bladder cancer. A key factoid is she was adopted, so her cancer was not genetic and it came from exposure.

Steingraber has strongly advocated for kids on environmental issues. Her first two books called “Living Downstream” and “Raising Elijah,” using her son’s name, focus on these issues. A huge takeaway from her books and advocacy is we tend to measure the impact of environmental toxins on a fifty year old man, not children.

Why is this statement important? Kids are still developing their brains, so they are more susceptible to environmental toxins. Their lungs take time to fully develop as well. Plus, children are smaller in weight, closer to the ground, breathe more through their mouths and put their hands in their mouths with much greater frequency. If they touch something, it winds up in their mouth (remember the pretreated lumber playgrounds? – arsenic was used in the pretreatment).

Steingraber and other scientists’ analyses reveal toxins from chemical plants can damage us from air particulates as much as from seepage into the water. She notes these toxins settle on playgrounds, fields and trees, but then become airborne when the wind blows again. So, kids will often get exposed from what they touch or breathe in from what they scuff up from the ground.

I have seen her speak and have read both of these books. Her message resonates with parents. With the assault on environmental regulations by the current White House, her message is needed even more. Plus, she has another huge caution for all of us. As the climate warms, the impact of these chemicals will only get worse. She likens the earth to a crock pot that is warming these chemicals.

I encourage you to read her books. Her message is pertinent, loud and clear. It needs to be shouted from the rooftops, but especially from the playgrounds. We owe it to our children.

Coastal collaborations

One good, one bad. One founded on truth, one founded to perpetuate a lie. Two recent articles in The Charlotte Observer shed a spotlight on the coastal threat of man-influenced climate change and these two collaborations.

First, the bad. North Carolina realtors who sell coastal properties have banded together to fight those who want to plan for climate change induced sea rise. They have successfully lobbied the passage of a law in the General Assembly that repeals the requirement that builders reflect the impact of climate change on their structures and placement.

This adversarial relationship with science has followed a history of the GOP led General Assembly toward climate change. The more memorable moment was the General Assembly’s refusal to accept a peer reviewed scientific report that said sea levels would rise by 39 inches by the end of the century, accepting one that looked backwards limiting the increase to 8 inches. The former report had been accepted by Virginia and Louisiana. Stephen Colbert ridiculed the NCGA on one of his shows for the absurdity in NC.

Realtors are supposed to tell the truth, although there are some who embellish too much. Yet, to try to hold back the ocean with paperwork is not good business. When leaders hide the truth, people suffer. I encourage buyers to do research with reputable sources, including their ability to insure their potential properties. Owners on NC’s Bald Head Island realized the hard way what happens when property is built too close and without buffers.

Now, the good. In response to an executive order by the current White House incumbent to do seismic testing in advance of offshore oil development off our Atlantic Coast, a building bipartisan coalition has formed. Six coastal states’ governors (two Republican) have joined with numerous mayors and business people to fight this oil exploration.

They estimate the coastal tourism business is about $95 Billion per year. Then, there is the fishing industry which is exposed. And, we should not lose sight of homebuyers who want to retire or have property near the ocean. It should be noted that the Florida and Georgia governors are silent on these issues, which is viewed as a positive by this group.

Climate change is a real threat that is no longer futuristic. Miami is the most at risk city in the world in terms of assets and sees daily flooding even without hurricanes. The latter are now more severe  in strength, while droughts and forest fires are more in number and extremity. These are predicted in climate change models.

I am disappointed in these coastal realtors, the NC General Assembly and the White House. Ignoring scientific experts on this topic puts people in harm’s way. We must plan accordingly. I praise highly the courage and wisdom of these governors, mayors and business people. They see climate change as a threat and offshore fossil fuel development as a risk.