Friday, September 30, 2011

Cellulosic Aviation Biofuels

Record USDA Grants to UW, WSU

Red alder forest
 ~ The announcement of the record grants for aviation biofuel research are exciting indeed and a great coup for biofuel researchers in the Pacific Northwest.

The 5-year grants, part of the Agricultural and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are the largest ever from the USDA. USDA was surprised at the level of interest when the funding opportunity was announced. 63 groups expressed interest and 35 were selected to submit full proposals. Of those, 30 made application, and 8 finalists were invited to Washington to present their proposals. The 5 winners include the teams led by researchers from the UW and WSU, each of which received $40M in funding. Each team is a consortium of members; approximately 62.8% of the funding will go to land grant universities and 22.9% to industrial (business) partners, with rest divvied up among other universities, federal partners and one non-profit organization.

Programmatically, the 5 teams are all striving to develop sustainable biofuels, particularly for aviation, a pressing need also a focus of the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest (SAFNW) initiative announced earlier this year. The teams have some research overlap in their proposals: 62% of the funding targets woody biomass and 25% perennial grasses, with the rest going towards sorghum and other feedstocks. None of the funded research seeks to repurpose food crops into biofuels.

Some challenges the teams will face in creating a sustainable biojet fuel:
  • Building an energy industry in rural areas
  • Developing viable lignin coproducts. (As the old joke has it, “You can make anything out of lignin, except money”)
  • Tremendous variability in the lignocellulosic cell walls of different feedstocks (e.g. between hardwoods such as poplar, alder and the ubiquitous North American softwoods, especially the Northwest’s Douglas fir) and between the different parts of the plant: stem, bark, leaves, etc. There are many tradeoffs between ease and cost
  • Cost-effective pre-treatment alternatives, including optimal chip or particle size, and the presence of dirt and other contaminants (especially from woody municipal solid waste)
  • Feedstock development strategies
  • Establishing viable supply chains from landowners to aviation fuel
  • Determining feasible transportation logistics that optimize what is being transported, how, and how far
  • Stakeholder/community/social outreach: the project is unique because of the extraordinary level of vertical integration required

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Chuckful of Nuts

Entrepreneurs, and What They Need

Image from a Charles Schwab ad
 ~ Are you an entrepreneur whose nascent business is squelched by too many regulations?

I didn't think so. Regulations are just another detail that needs tending in the process of creating and building a business, sure, but I've never known any entrepreneur who refuses to even try because of them.

Until now. According to Charles Schwab:
We can spark an economic recovery by unleashing the job-creating power of business, especially small entrepreneurial businesses, which fuel economic and job growth quickly and efficiently. Indeed, it is the only way to pull ourselves out of this economic funk.

But doing so will require a consistent voice about confidence in businesses—small, large and in between... What we can do—and absolutely must—is knock down all hurdles that create disincentives for investment in business.
Schwab's point is that government is responsible for a lack of confidence on the part of investors who, fearing the government and its regulations, won't invest in businesses.

It's hard for me to overstate how silly this is.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Where's It Wednesday—LI

Where in Seattle is this?

Somewhere in Seattle... but where?

Answer next week.

Details on the weekly Where's It Wednesday puzzle here.
Other weeks' puzzles here.
Answer to last week's puzzle, after the jump.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Time to Consider Regulations

Shoe's On the Other Foot

Monty Python foot
 ~ Well, look who wants to take more time on regulations now.

After the BP Macondo fiasco the Obama Administration imposed a moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. There was an obvious need to reassess regulations and procedures, both for industry and for the government. Big Oil hated the moratorium and pushed relentlessly for its termination. Within a year they had succeeded, despite incomplete understanding of what happened and why, incomplete regulatory review, and incomplete preparations to prevent a recurrence. And, importantly, despite the design and promulgation of new safety and production regulations. The ceaseless refrain was that the Feds were taking too long studying and revising the regulations.

The insanely zealous drill-now drill-everywhere American Petroleum Institute (API) lead the way, with its bevy of "directors" issuing press releases daily decrying the supposed loss of jobs, economic benefits, American competitiveness, etc. The facts didn't much intrude on the Chicken Little antics, but never mind.

In a not-so-rare piece of unconscious irony, the API now urges a delay in issuing regulations, because they need more time to study them.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Energy Subsidies

Buying Winners

The philosophy of pigs at the trough
 ~ I'll write much more about Solyndra another day, but one meme heard currently is the undue influence supposedly exerted by renewable energy companies in their quest for subsidization and financial risk mitigation. A new report from DBL Investors is timely, especially its lead quotation which sets the tone of the report:
Some argue that the consumer can purchase warmth or work or mobility at less cost by means of coal or oil or nuclear energy than by means of sunshine or wind or biomass. The argument concludes that this fact, in and of itself, relegates renewable energy resources to a small place in the national energy budget. The argument would be valid if energy prices were set in perfectly competitive markets. They are not. The costs of energy production have been underwritten unevenly among energy resources by the Federal Government.
—August 1981 report of the DOE
Battelle Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
The report shows government subsidy support for different forms of energy over time, with a focus on the earliest stages of each energy industry's growth. Thus, it shows the extent to which subsidies were provided to different energy technologies when each of those technologies were as yet new and unproven, lacking infrastructure and market adoption.
With differing periods and different eras, comparisons are difficult. But the report calculates that nuclear subsidies came to more than 1 percent of the federal budget in their first 15 years, and that oil and gas subsidies made up one-half of 1 percent of the total budget in their first 15 years. “Renewables have constituted only about a tenth of a percent," the report says.
The money graph, in more ways than one:

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Just a Castaway

Plastic Trash or Social Networking?

 ~ While the problem of plastic in the oceans is real, and serious, there is a tiny fraction both purposeful and amusing:
Over the last two decades, Harold Hackett has sent out over 4,800 messages in a bottle from Prince Edward Island, Canada's smallest province along the Atlantic coastline.

Every message asks for the finder to send a response back to Hackett, and since 1996 he has received over 3,100 responses from all over the world.
Go to the BBC webpage to see a video wherein Hackett talks about his hobby.

That's a pretty good response rate. I hope direct marketers don't seize on this for some kind of ill-considered promotion.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Climate Change Practicality

More Corporations are Preparing

CSR being adopted by more businesses every year
 ~ While some politicians are, with growing shrillness, insisting that climate change is a mere theory, unproven, a conspiracy, a hoax, or nothing to worry about, corporations all over the world are preparing for its inevitable consequences. 81% of the world's 500 largest corporations responded to the Carbon Disclosure Project survey, and 65% of those have implemented climate change strategies, up from 35% in 2010.
The Carbon Disclosure Project, which has been conducting the S&P 500 report for 10 years, marks this year as the first time that a majority of companies recognize the opportunity to gain strategic advantage from addressing climate change.

Increasing investor pressure, uncertain fuel prices, extreme weather events, recognition of new revenue and product opportunities are the drivers for corporate attention to climate change, says the Carbon Disclosure Project.
Listening to the Wingnut Wurlitzer one might be forgiven for thinking that business so hates uncertainty that they are unable to act unless government instills some mythic level of confidence. The requisite business confidence, we are repeatedly told, can only occur if government removes regulations that protect the environment. So why are businesses acting now, despite the alleged uncertainty?

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Job Creators

Not Very Creative

 ~ We are told, repeatedly, that we must cut taxes so that the Job Creators (i.e. the very rich) can create jobs. How's that working for the nation's second largest corporate empire and its billionaire owners?

billionaire Koch brothers reap tax cuts, but don't create jobs

It appears tax cuts are not very creative.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Fast Turn

Time-Lapse Video from the Space Station

 ~ Exhilarating:

I've watched it three times, but I can't find my house. I'm not even sure what land masses I'm looking at.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Where's It Wednesday—L

A fleeting view of the operations of a Seattle company that was green long before that was fashionable. Where in Seattle is this?

Somewhere in Seattle... but where?

Answer next week.

Details on the weekly Where's It Wednesday puzzle here.
Other weeks' puzzles here.
Answer to last week's puzzle, after the jump.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hear My Train A-Comin'

For Our High Speed Lifestyle

 ~ Would you take a high-speed train that doesn't stop?

The video shows the "non-stop MRT system" of its Taiwanese inventor Peng Yu-lun and is in Mandarin, but you can get a pretty good idea nonetheless of how passengers use ingenious reusable shuttles to get on and off a high speed train without it stopping or even (much?) slowing down:

English explanation here.

Possible problems:

Monday, September 19, 2011

Recycling the Gyres

Method Madness

Lisa Jackson (EPA), Adam Lowry of Method, and Karen Mills (SBA)
 ~ Innovative company Method made a splashy announcement last week: they've made bottles from plastic recycled from the North Pacific Gyre.

This ocean plastic covers an area the size of Texas, and is the largest of 5 such floating garbage patches, one in each of the world's large ocean gyres.

However, most of the plastic pieces are so tiny that they can barely be seen, except by marine life that mistakes the plastic for food. The ingested plastic and its constituent chemicals and contaminants then enter the food chain.

Method has done well to call attention to the problem, and being flanked by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and SBA chief Karen Mills is a nice PR coup for sure, but there's no new business that comes out of this, nor any sustained environmental cleanup, despite the presence of the two powerful agency heads.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Ignorance and Democracy

Alas, the Ignorant Care Less

~ This false equivalence can be found in every debate, from climate change to the deficit:

Isaac Asimov quote on the the false equivalence of the opinions of the ignorant and the knowledgeable

However, it is still one person, one vote. If the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, we are all at substantial risk from the ignorant who know not what to watch, how to evaluate what they see, the impact of their actions, or the corrosive decay that arises from their fatigued cynicism or apathetic indifference.

It's rare indeed that I can favorably quote anything from the Cato Institute, but here is the lead paragraph to a 2004 piece of "policy analysis":

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Mightier Wind

Nanomaterials and Gigaturbines

Huge wind turbine blade being transported through small town
 ~ Manufacturers are eyeing wind turbines of 10MW and are even pondering behemoths of as much as 15MW. Such monsters wold have blades longer than football fields, requiring different material sets than are in use today.
[Marcio] Loos [a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Macromolecular Science and Engineering] went to the lab on weekends and built the world's first polyurethane blade reinforced with carbon nanotubes. He wanted to be sure the composite that was scoring best on preliminary tests could be molded into the right shape and maintain properties.

Using a small commercial blade as a template, he manufactured a 29-inch blade that is substantially lighter, more rigid and tougher.
Sounds great, but, as one person noted in the comments, a spiffy and cutting edge technology matters little unless it is scalable, has a good supply chain, and, above, all, is cost-competitive. Oh, and how will they get it from the factory to the site?

Friday, September 16, 2011

"So, What are You Doing?"

"(These Days?)"

The motion of juggling balls hand-to-hand
~ I've been asked this, or questions like it, quite a bit lately. Perhaps, thanks to this lovely turnover economy, it's because many of us are changing positions, jobs or careers at a frenetic pace. Perhaps, unfortunately, it's because my LinkedIn page doesn't provide the simplest summary. Or perhaps it's because today's my birthday, and birthdays are a great time to ping friends and colleagues with such whazzup questions.

It's hard even for my close friends to figure it out; the line-up changes all the time. And indeed, I need several prosthetic memory devices (laptop, Droid, calendar, and many, many lists) to stay on top of it myself.

While I do consulting and contract work, what I really do is serve as a kind of entrepreneur-at-large, pursuing several opportunities where I can help turn the chaos of a general idea into a growing, successful business.

The current line-up? My favorites (that I can talk about):

    Thursday, September 15, 2011

    Climate Change Geography

    The Climes They Are A-Changing

    Uunartoq Qeqertaq in satellite pictures between 1985 and 2005
     ~ Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus recognized that the only constant is change, writing that it is impossible to step in the same river twice. It is the same river, but it isn't the same.

    Rivers all over the world are changing a lot lately. Some are drying out before they reach the sea (Colorado). Others, engorged by torrents of rain or melting glaciers, are moving unprecedented levels of silt, creating new islands at their mouths (Ganges).

    Islands have been lost below the rising seas. Others are going. Ice that has existed for thousands of years is melting, and in Greenland has revealed Uunartoq Qeqertaq (Warming Island),  just added to the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World.
    The world's biggest physical changes in the past few years are mostly seen nearest the poles where climate change has been most extreme. Greenland appears considerably browner round the edges, having lost around 15%, or 300,000 sq km, of its permanent ice cover. Antarctica is smaller following the break-up of the Larsen B and Wilkins ice shelves.
    Meanwhile, the oceans are dying.

    I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.

    Wednesday, September 14, 2011

    Where's It Wednesday—XLIX

    I'm giving you some contextual clues this week. Where in Seattle is this?

    Somewhere in Seattle... but where?

    Answer next week.

    Details on the weekly Where's It Wednesday puzzle here.
    Other weeks' puzzles here.
    Answer to last week's puzzle, after the jump.

    Tuesday, September 13, 2011

    Climate Change Scientific Method

    "Luckily We're Not Climate Scientists"

    Artist's conception of diamond planet orbiting a pulsar
     ~ The scientific method is the same irrespective of the field of science to which the method is applied. This point is made engagingly by Matthew Bailes, in a brief article contrasting the different reception by politicians, the press and public to scientific discoveries in climate science versus in other fields. Bailes and his colleagues discovered the diamond planet and received "amazing attention" and great favor:
    Our host institutions were thrilled with the publicity and most of us enjoyed our 15 minutes of fame. The attention we received was 100% positive, but how different that could have been.

    How so? Well, we could have been climate scientists.

    Monday, September 12, 2011

    What Americans Want

    And Our Politicians Don't Do

    Wiley cartoon on polling
     ~ A new study of public attitudes by party shows surprising agreement on a number of issues. Majorities of voters, whether self-identifying as a Democrat, Republican, Independent or member of the Tea Party, told researchers that they
    • Support funding more research into renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power
    • Support providing tax rebates for people who purchase energy efficient vehicles or solar panels
    • Support local regulations requiring new homes to be more energy efficient
    • Support the construction of bike paths on city streets
    • Support increasing the availability of public transportation in their county
    • Believe protecting the environment either improves economic growth and provides new jobs or has no effect on economic growth or jobs
    • Trust scientists as a source of information about global warming
    • Support expansion of offshore drilling for oil and natural gas off the U.S. coast
    So why is that, except for the last item, our politicians appear unable to advance any of these things?
    The study was conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, and was funded by the Surdna Foundation, the 11th Hour Project, and the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment.

    Sunday, September 11, 2011

    No Fear

    Face Squarely the Real Threats

     ~ Yoda:
    Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.
    Woman grieving over 9-11 attacks on World Trade Center
    Although we shouldn't ignore them, it's not terrorists we should be fearing. The more existential threat is that, by our actions, our reactions, and our inaction, we will destroy ourselves. This is the only mechanism by which terrorism can succeed: by encouraging an emotional state where we abandon reason, forget our values, and lose sight of our ideals.

    In a few hours, I'm getting on an airplane. Yeah, it's the 10th anniversary of 9-11, but life goes on, and it is only that life we choose to lead. I'm not afraid of flying, or terrorists, and I suppose some day I could be one of the unlucky few (the very few) that is killed by a terrorist.

    I fear much more for my country.

    Cornelius Nepos:
    Hateful is the power, and pitiable is the life, of those who wish to be feared rather than to be loved.

    Saturday, September 10, 2011

    Green Bank

    One Stone, Many Birds

    Green piggy bank
     ~ We should implement a Green Bank, and we should fund it with a gas tax.

    Ron Pernick at Clean Edge is the latest of many voices advocating the creation of a Green Bank to fund infrastructure and clean energy projects. It's been done in Connecticut. It's been proposed (the Clean Energy Deployment Administration) in the US Senate. However, such a measure would have to have specific funding sources or, in this political climate especially, offsetting spending reductions elsewhere. (Why this quid pro quo is not applied to endless tax cuts or certain other spending, e.g. on natural disaster response, is exasperatingly arbitrary.)

    Some of the many current and pressing problems a Green Bank would address include:

    Friday, September 9, 2011

    Climate Change Culprits

    We Have Met the Enemy

     ~ It's us.

    Mike Luckovich cartoon: extreme waether prompts US military to seek Mother Nature in Pakistan

    The growing number, severity and cost of "natural disasters" are what climate change models predict. Will we continue to be reactive, or address the root cause?

    Even as GOP presidential front-runner Rick Perry scrambles to address dozens of severe wild fires stemming from record heat and drought, he continues to miss the obvious. The rest of them are equally unhinged. They're wrong on the science. They're wrong on the economics. They behave like J.K. Rowling's Ministry of Magic enabling the Death-Eaters. They're a cult.

    Thursday, September 8, 2011

    Capital Efficiency

    Yadda Yadda Yadda

    Cartoon: Why can I not get venture funding?
    ~ You can't swing a dead cat in a room full of investors these days without whacking at least one person praising the virtues of capital efficiency. Capital efficiency? Say what?

    Capital efficiency in the startup investment world refers to a company's ability to make more progress, or advance to stages of lower risk, with fewer investor dollars. It's a laudable objective to be sure; these days who doesn't prize the ability to do more with less? However, the mindless mantra of capital efficiency should merit more scrutiny.

    It's swell if you're a software play. Put a couple of wired geeks in a room with a case of Monster, fast rigs and a T-1 and you can birth a beta in mere weeks that will wow the digeratti.

    But what if you're a startup in something other than software? Regrettably, you'd be in a position of explaining, not a good place from which to pitch.

    At the risk of being a heretic, I'm going to call out the naked emperor: software is boring. And redundant. Too many are piling on with me me-too plays and feckless filigrees on niche plays that mean little. Who cares? There's more to a good investment than a modest need for capital.

    Wednesday, September 7, 2011

    Where's It Wednesday—XLVIII

    Another easier one. Where in Seattle is this?

    Somewhere in Seattle... but where?

    Answer next week.

    Details on the weekly Where's It Wednesday puzzle here.
    Other weeks' puzzles here.
    Answer to last week's puzzle, after the jump.

    Tuesday, September 6, 2011

    Phytelligence to Present at NWEN FLF

    First Look Forum of 12 Startups

    Phytelligence logo
    ~ Phytelligence, a new biotech spin-out from WSU has been selected as one of 12 companies to present at the upcoming NWEN First Look Forum on October 18. between 150 and 200 people, primarily investors, are expected to attend.

    Phytelligence is built on innovative intellectual property developed by WSU Professor Amit Dhingra and a sterling team of researchers to produce better micro-propagated fruit plantlets using tissue culture techniques. The team has successfully and repeatedly propagated many apple, pear, cherry, grape and strawberry cultivars using techniques that can be extended to other plants. Attributes of plantlets using Phytelligence technology that are valuable to growers include greater plant vigor and genetic uniformity. Plantlets also attain maturity more quickly, use less energy to produce, and cost less. Phytelligence is being built on sustainability principles, and has several innovative aspects to its business model.

    More details to be announced in October.

    Monday, September 5, 2011

    Climate Walruses

    "I Weep for You"

    After the depressing news of what is happening to oysters, I thought I would repost this from 12/13/09.

    ~ Climate change deniers have been in full throat since the breaking of SwiftHack (often poorly and misleadingly named as "Climategate".) This supposed "scandal" is a calculated piece of propaganda, timed for maximum impact on the Copenhagen conference and transmorgified and regurgitated for brazenly craven reasons by the right-wing noise machine.

    Their intellectual coherency, the relevancy of what they say... it reminds me of something I heard once...
    "The time has come," the Walrus said,
    "To talk of many things:
    Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
    Of cabbages--and kings--
    And why the sea is boiling hot--
    And whether pigs have wings."

    Sunday, September 4, 2011

    Faint Hope

    Obama Disappoints, Again

    Sign: Warning! Crude Pipeline
    ~ In theory a decision on whether to grant the go-ahead on the Keystone XL pipeline won't be made until the end of the year. However, Hilary Clinton at State has, incredibly, signaled her OK with it by endorsing a final EIS that avers no significant environmental impacts.

    It is inconceivable that Obama will not approve it, even as it is inconceivable that such a disastrous approval could be made despite the consequences. NASA scientist Jim Hansen writes that they include:
    ...irreversible effects on biodiversity, the natural environment, reduced water quality, destruction of fragile pristine Boreal Forest and associated wetlands, aquatic and watershed mismanagement, habitat fragmentation, habitat loss, disruption to life cycles of endemic wildlife particularly bird and Caribou migration, fish deformities and negative impacts on the human health in downstream communities.
    And then there's the carbon emissions from the tar sands themselves, the development of which the pipeline will accelerate. Stabilizing the climate is looking increasingly like a long shot; this pushes it off the plane of possibility over the edge into the abyss of hopelessness.

    Yeah, but it creates jobs!

    Saturday, September 3, 2011

    Energy Lies—IV

    "As President, I Will Lower Gas Prices"

    Cost breakdown of gasoline prices 2000-2010
    ~ Michele Bachmann claims she could get gas under $2/gallon if elected President. Could she do it? How much influence does the President have on the price of gasoline?

    The short answer: very little. The slightly longer answer: some, but not of a kind that would make much of a (positive) difference.

    The price of gasoline is the sum of 6 components: the cost of crude oil, the cost of refining it, distribution, marketing, profits and taxes. It follows that lowering the price of gasoline must involve lowering one or more of these 6 components. So how could the President do that?

    Friday, September 2, 2011

    Politics Explained

    Yoram Bauman: Left Right and Center

    ~ The world's only stand-up economist explains all you need to know about politics in 7+ minutes:

    On budget deficits (starting about 4:37):
    It's almost like the left wing blames the right and the right wing blames the left, but I blame the center. You guys are supposed to be the idiot savants of democracy. When it comes to economic matters it turns out that you're just idiots. We don't have a budget deficit because the left wing believes in mandates or because the right wing believes in markets, we have a budget deficit because the middle believes in magic.

    Every time a left-wing politician is like: "Hey I've a great idea for a road or a school or a bridge" swing voters are like: "Yeah, let's do that!" And every time a right-wing politician says we should cut taxes, swing voters are like "Yeah let's do that!" Then it turns out we have a budget deficit and of course you blame the politicians.

    This is like going to the doctor's office for your annual check-up and the doctor tells you you've been putting on weight. And the left side of your brain says: "Hey, I guess I better exercise more" and the right side of your brain says "Hey! I guess I better stop eating so many donuts." And the middle part of your brain says: "I guess I better get a new doctor!"

    Thursday, September 1, 2011

    Awkward Alliance

    Confounded Elephants

    ~ The Keystone XL Pipeline is making strange bedfellows:

    Neal Obermeyer: Keystone XL cartoon

    While the pachyderms will quickly get over their embarrassment as if it never were, the Obama Administration regrettably feels none at all for their latest groveling. Abandoning all pretense of commitment to a sustainable energy future, they embrace the diametrically opposite choice—the dirtiest fuel in the most environmentally damaging way, threatening a critical aquifer, and condemning us to climate disaster. And politically, they will score no lasting points with Big Oil or the GOP. Everyone loses, except those that stand to profit at our collective expense.