Microchipping The World To Pieces

Modern manufacturing methods are spectacularly inefficient in their use of energy and materials. Overall new manufacturing systems are anywhere from 1,000 to 1 million times bigger consumers of energy, per pound of output, than traditional industries. Microchips use orders of magnitude more energy than manhole covers.

This according to a detailed MIT analysis of 20 major manufacturing processes. "The seemingly extravagant use of materials and energy resources by many newer manufacturing processes is alarming and needs to be addressed alongside claims of improved sustainability from products manufactured by these means," says Timothy Gutowski [pdf] of MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Manufacturers have traditionally been more concerned with price, quality, or cycle time, and not as concerned with energy use. That will change, though, when energy prices rise again and when/if a carbon tax is adopted.

Take solar panels. (Say it isn't so!) Their production uses some of the same manufacturing processes as microchips but on a larger scale. Plus their production is escalating dramatically. The inefficiency of current solar panel manufacturing drastically reduces the technology's lifecycle energy balance.

Translation: the ratio of energy the panel produces over its useful lifespan compared to the energy required to manufacture it sucks.

The good news is that this study published in Environmental Science & Technology is making the first important steps toward understanding which processes are most inefficient and which and need further research to develop less energy-intensive alternatives.

Example: many newer processes involve vapor-phase processing (e.g., material is vaporized in a vacuum chamber to make a coating). Depositing a coating from a liquid solution is better and could be developed to downsize the energy footprint.

The study covered everything from old fashioned industries like a cast-iron foundry all the way up to semiconductors and nanomaterials. It included injection molding, sputtering, carbon nanofiber production and dry etching, along with more traditional machining, milling, drilling and melting. (However, the researchers only looked at processes where electricity was the primary energy source, hence no analysis of pharmaceutical or petroleum industries.)

Plus the figures are inherently conservative since they don't include things like the energy required to make the materials themselves or the energy required to maintain the environment of the plant (air conditioning, filtration).

Gutowski's bottom line: new processes are huge users of materials and energy and have increased our energy and materials consumption by three to six orders of magnitude. The "claims that these technologies are going to save us in some way need closer scrutiny. There's a significant energy cost involved here [and] each of these processes could be improved."

Take heed bright green environmentalists.
Chinese-made drywall releases a rotten egg smell and might be corroding household wiring and causing health problems. It was installed throughout the Gulf Coast region in the wake of Hurricane Katrina as U.S.-made drywall became scare in the midst of the housing boom. One hundred and fifty homeowners have complained about drywall odors to the Florida Health Department; the large homebuilder, Lennar Corp., has been forced to rip out walls and is suing Chinese drywall companies; and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is investigating whether the drywall is posing a potential safety hazard. The Wall Street Journal, the only national paper that has covered the issue extensively, wonders if Chinese drywall is the "new mold." It's certainly the new toy or dog food, other Chinese product lines that have proven potentially dangerous and led to recalls. The drywall scare will compound the housing crisis by further burdening struggling builders and homeowners. And it points to the hollowness of the housing boom in the context of the global economy. Even our homes weren't made at home, and the housing boom has imported toxic assets to Main Street in more ways than one.

Lights Out...Forever?

Earth Hour starts at 8:30 PM tomorrow. Yet as people around the world prepare to throw the switch to enlighten others about climate change, I'm mildly freaked about the prospect of the lights going out for good. New Scientist reports that NASA and the National Academies of Science are pretty concerned about giant solar plasma balls wiping out the world's power grids in an instant. And not just for an hour or two; we're talking months or years—or at least until someone figures out a way to make more electrical transformers without using electricity. (Read the full report here.) Such a "space weather Katrina," as the NAS helpfully describes it, could literally be the beginning of a new dark age. Oh, and of course, the next round of solar flare-ups is scheduled to start in—when else?— 2012.

The Front Lines of Climate Change

I had the good fortune just over a year ago to travel with Oceanites researchers Ron Naveen and Heather Lynch to Antarctica aboard the National Geographic Endeavour;. My article talked about climate change and tourism and science. Here's a gorgeously-filmed update on Oceanites' findings from the front lines of climate change: the rapidly changing realm of ice and penguins.

Heat Stroke: Are We Ready?

There's no vaccination against climate change. And a lot of diseases are on the move because of it. So have you ever wondered how much our federal government spends on health research related to climate change? You know, all those problems coming our way—some already here—like heat-related mortality, diarrheal diseases, diseases associated with exposure to ozone and airborne  allergens, plus all the health effects from altered air, water, agriculture, and ecosystems services. How about less than $3 million a year?

Kind of hard to believe. Multiply that number by 33 and you get the amount in bonuses AIG is planning to pay its executives for destroying their company. Bonuses paid for with federally funded bailout money.

A new study in Environmental Health Perspectives says that even though climate change will seriously impact public health, the US has yet to allocate anywhere near adequate funding to prepare for these impacts. So what's needed? A measly $200 million or so. Enough to shift research priorities at the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The report points out that funding research on the effects of climate change on human health is a wise investment, consistent with the goals of restoring economic stability, justice, environmental quality, and reducing healthcare costs. So can't we just beg, borrow, or print a little more money to do that?

Will the Feds Spray the Border?

The latest addition to the Border Patrol's most-wanted list isn't an illegal immigrant, but a plant.

Well, okay, a plant that could conceal illegal immigrants, the Patrol fears. The plant in question is Carrizo cane, an invasive weed that grows in dense thickets along the border. The Feds' plan (which, predictably, has drawn some Agent Orange comparisons) was to spray the cane with the herbicide Imazapyr, but not everyone is thrilled about that:
A lawsuit accused the Department of Homeland Security of violating the National Environmental Policy Act regarding the now-delayed U.S. Border Patrol plans to conduct aerial spraying of an herbicide on carrizo (kah-DEE'-zoh) cane near the Rio Grande.
Residents of two Laredo neighborhoods on Tuesday sued DHS in a lawsuit which alleged the public wasn't sufficiently notified about the spraying program, the Laredo Morning Times reported in a story for Wednesday's editions.



 

Abortions Up in Tough Times?

Apparently that's the case, that people are finding kids too spendy right now. The National Network for Abortion Funds, which helps women in need pay for abortions, says that calls to their helpline have quadrupled in recent months. The AP/Google.com puts it this way:
For many Americans, the recession is affecting their most intimate decisions about sex and family planning. Doctors and clinics are reporting that many women are choosing abortions and men are having vasectomies because they cannot afford a child.
First, this is a siren call for prevention, which legislators, and the courts, are hearing. That you have to resort to an abortion when you could be given access to available, affordable, birth control, is a lousy choice to have to make.

Second, how much do abortions cost anyway? Since many states restrict coverage [pdf] of the procedure by insurers, and since the Hyde amendment still prohibits federal funds (such as Medicaid) from covering most abortions, women often have to pay out-of-pocket. First trimester abortions cost in the neighborhood of $300-$500, second trimester ones can run upwards of $5000. And since the price for an abortion goes up pretty much each week once you get into the second trimester the issue of access takes on renewed significance. Waiting periods, parental notification, restrictions that send women across borders, these all take an emotional toll, and a financial one. I wonder if the recession could also be having an opposite effect, women wanting to have the procedure but not doing so because money is tight.

Twenty Years Ago Today

Twenty years after Exxon Valdez and we're still shipping it, pumping it, burning it. Twenty years since James Hansen published a prophetic paper foreseeing what we're now experiencing. A commenter from my earlier Exxon Valdez post lives on a 30,000 acre XOM oil lease in South Texas and made this film, which I like. This is what he/she had to say:

They dump all the time and don't care. It's horrible. Our ground water is full of BTEX and lots of clusters of leukemia around their old leases. The Railroad Commission turns a blind eye. I made a webpage: http://www.RanchoLosMalulos.com. I go around the lease and post stuff so you can all enjoy the soap opera of watching XOM dump. We sample stuff and put the lab results, have professional ground water monitoring wells done, it's so filthy. Exxon Mobil seems to get away with a lot in this world. Their commercials make me cringe.

This story was first published on ProPublica.org.

Peter Taback's first reaction to the Center for AIDS Prevention's prominent advertisement on the New York Times' Web site was jealousy. Taback, communications director for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, was impressed another organization had cast its reach so far.

But on closer inspection, his envy shifted to outrage.

The Beverly Hills-based Center for AIDS Prevention has mobilized a nationwide fundraising campaign, but members of the tight-knit AIDS community in California have never heard of the group. Its history is shrouded in mystery, and even people who have interacted with the group are uncertain of its purpose. The Web site offers incorrect information about AIDS prevention and treatment -- such as the suggestion that birth control pills prevent the spread of HIV (PDF). The charity's proprietor also has ties to a for-profit company that sold ineffective herbal AIDS remedies to replace antiretroviral drugs.

The center is committing "public health malpractice," Taback said. "To have misinformation like that on the Web site is profoundly disturbing."

As charitable giving constricts with the economy, many AIDS foundations and treatment facilities are struggling to stay afloat, and AIDS advocates were also concerned that funding could be diverted from urgently needed services.

Meanwhile, the center's own financial and legal history is, at best, questionable.

New Species of Ice Invading Arctic

A different kind of ice is replacing ancient Arctic ice. The new stuff is qualitatively different. It's thinner, darker, wetter. Worse, it may already be changing the local weather and the ability to grow new ice. It could even alter the oceanic circulation that mediates global climate, reports Nature. Oh, it's bad for polar bears too.

Until recently, the Arctic maintained a lot of multiyear sea ice that takes years to grow and thicken and survives from one year to the next. Some melts each summer. But only in small areas. Too small for the wind to work up big waves. The new ice growing in these calm ponds forms unbroken sheets known as nilas ice.

But the multiyear ice is now melting so fast that vast areas are opening up. Big enough for big weather to set up waves. And these waves chop up the new ice as fast as it tries to form. Ice crystals tossed around in these conditions combine to form a slushy mixture called grease ice. After that, it sets into thin round pancakes of ice three to six feet in diameter.

Why is that worrying?

  • Round pancakes leave areas of dark open water between them.
  • This open water accelerates warming since less of the Sun's radiation is reflected (albedo).
  • Seawater slops up between the pancakes onto the ice so that falling snow melts rather than freezes on top.
  • Wetter pancake ice keeps the overall surface darker and warmer.

Jeremy Wilkinson of the Scottish Association for Marine Science in the UK says: "This whole cycle is not in models of the Arctic or the Antarctic. It's one of these conundrums that people haven't looked into." Young ice isn't that well studied because there used not to be much of it around. Now it's proliferating like an invasive species.

Wilkinson and colleagues just completed a series of lab experiments measuring the difference between nilas and pancake ice. They found that pancake ice actually forms faster than nilas ice. But this faster formation extracts fresh water from the ocean faster, leaving the seas saltier, which is likely to have an impact on ocean circulation, ice growth, and air temperature. The big stuff.

BTW, although the extent of the sea ice was greater in 2008 than during the record low of 2007, the additional ice was all young ice. Multiyear ice actually declined below 2007 levels.

Add to this the recent news that climate change and accompanying ice loss is now the single biggest threat to the survival of polar bears—stir in a dram of Canadian insanity in the form of an "extreme" polar bear hunt, whereby rich dudes throw down $35,000 for Inuit guides who save their asses from getting lost, sled dogs who haul their lardasses across the miles, and heated tents that keep their precious asses frost free—well, what can I say… How many of these manly men are getting fat bonuses from AIG, I wonder?