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Showing posts from 2011

Peak oil? Nonsense! Says Daniel Yergin

Dr. Daniel Yergin has just published "The Quest," "a magisterial masterpiece," according to an endorsement by Dr. Lawrence Summers, a well known economist and ex-President of Harvard University. Mr. Yergin received his B.A. from Yale University in 1968, and earned his Ph.D. in International Relations (1974) from Cambridge University.

The other endorsements came from:
Mr. Walter Isaacson, a writer and biographer, and President of The Aspen Institute.Dr. Henry Kissinger, who received his A.B., A.M. and Ph.D. degrees at Harvard University. His doctoral dissertation was titled "Peace, Legitimacy, and the Equilibrium (A Study of the Statesmanship of Castlereagh and Metternich)."Mr. Steve Coll, a journalist and writer, and President of the New America Foundation.Mr. Fred Krupp, an environmental lawyer from the University of Michigan, and CEO of the Environmental Defense Fund. Mr. Frederick W. Smith, B.A. in economics from Yale University, CEO of FedEx Corporati…

The bearable weight of not-being

My friend, Rob Dietz, has reminded me about these words by Aldo Leopold: "One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds." But when I mention the assorted causes of my internal bleeding to my wife and friends, they all look at me with disbelief and impatience. They do not feel the way I often do. What if their thinking is wiser and reflects what really can be done in a world overrun by seven billion people, who always want more than they have at any given moment and place? For most people on the Earth, "more" means safe water to drink, fresh food to eat, and a shelter with a cook stove and outhouse. For the very few "more" means an $2.5 million watch and unlimited access to all conceivable resources to be used at will.

So let me step back. The Earth, our beautiful blue and green living planet, will continue to be when we are gone, just as she was before we came. In fact, she probably is shutting down or …

Why Good Engineering Education and Research Are Inseparable? Part II - Research and Technology

Has anyone heard of foreigners clamoring to emulate the U.S. K-12 school system?  I certainly haven't.  I do receive, however, foreign delegations that want to learn how we organize academic research and graduate programs at UT Austin.  This happens at least once a month.  People around the world correctly perceive that most Tier 1 academic institutions in the U.S. are second to none and worthy of emulation.

And how about premier U.S. corporations?  Do they come to UT Austin or to the local community colleges to hire their top engineers and scientists?  Do they set up research campuses and incubators around UT or the Austin Community College?  (Please do not get me wrong, ACC is a very fine and vastly underfunded institution, which treats the most difficult cases of acute high-schoolitis and online-learnatis.  My youngest daughter, a BS graduate in premed from UC Santa Cruz, is a nursing student at ACC, and I am pleased with the quality of her program.)

Thus, it astounds me that s…

Why Good Engineering Education and Research Are Inseparable? Part I - Teaching

Here are two other questions related to the title:
What unique benefits are given to students at all levels - from freshmen to PhD candidates - by a good engineer and scientist, who also happens to be a decent teacher? How are these benefits different from those delivered by a credentialed, but scientifically incompetent teacher?We keep on hearing the loud and stubborn voices that call for a strict separation of teaching from engineering practice and research. I think that these voices are tragically mistaken.

By the way, when I say "tragically," I am thinking of Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Shakespeare. In a good Greek tragedy the audience knows the inevitable fatal outcome, but the protagonists don't.

For 22 years, I have been a teacher at two top public universities in the U.S.: UC Berkeley and UT Austin. Over time, I have taught some pretty large classes, so my statistical sample is sufficiently broad to justify the statements I shall make next.

This is what I…

Ethanol in fuel - Up close and personal

Five years ago, I published a short letter to Science about the real biofuel cycles.  The letter was published after a long struggle with the journal's Editor of Physical Sciences, Dr. R. Brooks Hanson, who limited my letter to 150 words, and tried to prevent me from putting in a link to these supporting materials. The whole fight was for not, because the link has been broken since I left Berkeley.  In these supporting materials, I made the following two statements:
Furfural in an impure ethanol mixture will gradually dissolve almost any rubber or elastomeric seals or ducts in storage systems and car fuel systems. (Page 13)

Finally, ethanol dissolves a large number of substances insoluble in water and acids, such as many inorganic salts, phosphorus, sulfur, iodine, resins, essential oils, fats, coloring matters, etc. (Wright, 1994).  Therefore, the metal-rich sludge in fuel tanks of most older cars will dissolve in ethanol-containing gasoline and accelerate corrosion of fuel system…

Energy, Ignorance, Lies and Bullshit

By reading some of my posts on energy, you now understand that a modern society cannot exist without huge amounts of energy flowing through it day and night.  In fact, I have argued, the modern society fails if these energy flows diminish, just like a starved mammal becomes sick and eventually dies from lack of food.

Further, I have explained that almost all of your electricity and transportation fuels comes from fossil fuels, uranium, and water behind dams.  I showed graphically that renewables are but a small addition to our daily energy portfolio.

Finally, I compared the energy sources and energy use in two important U.S. states, Texas and California.  These states are perceived quite differently.  California's image is synonymous with progress and clean energy, while Texas is regarded as overly conservative, and prone to using fossil fuels.  Yet, as I demonstrated, electricity sources in these two states are not that much different, and Texas produces 1/3 more renewable electr…

California versus Texas - Fuel Consumption

In the previous post I compared electricity production and imports in California and Texas. I told you that renewables generate about the same fraction of electricity in both states. Texas produces all of its electricity, while California imports coal and gas - as electricity and for electricity generation - almost five days a week.

It is important for you to understand that California will need to import a lot of carbon as natural gas to continue "decarbonizing" its economy by, for example, switching to plug-in vehicles. Without all that extra carbon, California's economy will undergo a miracle slimming diet. Such are the laws of physics.

What I didn't tell you in the previous post is that roughly half of all natural gas in California is used to generate electricity. The residential sector uses 22 percent of the other half. Of that amount, 88 percent is used by space and water heating.  So, if there are problems with imports of natural gas to California, not only th…

Texas versus California - Electricity Production

Using the approach introduced in the previous post, I will now investigate how electricity is produced and imported in Texas and California.  I choose these two states because I have strong ties to both of them, and they also enjoy very different public images.  Texas is generally viewed as pro-oil, gas, coal and nuclear power, while Californians appear to oppose all of these sources of electricity in their outlets, while touting the green and renewable sources.  It is therefore instructive to look at the main sources of your electricity when you live in Texas or California.

For the record, last year, Texas produced twice the amount of electricity imported and produced in California. Most of the difference was caused by air-conditioning everything in Texas, but also by Texas' large base of heavy industry, which is already gone from California, perhaps forever.

I start with my home state,Texas, because it is very simple to describe its electricity sources.  Basically, Texas has it…

Where is my energy coming from?

To keep our internet, telephones, computers, television sets, refrigerators and lights going, we require electricity 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. It is therefore instructive to know what sources of energy provide electricity in our outlets day-by-day.  The data from the U.S. Department of Energy are plotted below as days of electricity per year supplied to the U.S. customers from each major primary energy source.

It turns out that between 1997 and 2008, coal supplied between 176 and 200 days of electricity to all U.S. outlets.  Coal fuels the base-load power stations and its consumption has been remarkably constant.

Similarly, in 2008, natural gas supplied 79 days of electricity, nuclear power 72 days, and hydropower 23 days.  The electricity share of natural gas grew from 50 days per year a decade ago, to almost 80 days in 2008.  No new nuclear reactors have been built in the U.S. since late 1970s, but the nuclear power industry has learned how to manage their reactors better, a…

Things we say and do

Four years ago, in September 2007, I participated in a ministerial conference of OECD in Paris.  This conference was attended by the ministers of transportation and environment from the European Union, the U.S. observers, as well as a few invited industry people and faculty.

OECD stands for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It was conceived as a counterweight to OPEC. The largest contributor to OECD is the United States, which provides nearly 24% of the budget, followed by Japan. As a consequence, the U.S. exerts some influence on OECD.

At that Paris conference, I was asked to make a dinner speech.  [Reading this topical speech is essential to your understanding of my arguments against the serious public confusion surrounding issues of big energy.]

Halfway through my speech everybody in the room stopped eating and you could hear a fly, because no forks and knives were clicking. There were but a few questions afterwards. It appears that this speech has disqual…

The stupid things they say and do - Part 1

I have decided to start a series of brief comments on the current flood of rather incoherent babble that attacks us in the U.S. from every which direction. Here is a relevant snippet from my favorite New York Times, 5/30/2011, Changing the world by dropping out:
Parents, do you hope that your children have the chance to become like Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder, Facebook investor and hedge fund manager? If so, Mr. Thiel suggests that you encourage them to drop out of school. In fact, he will help by paying them to do it.

On Wednesday, the Thiel Foundation, funded by Mr. Thiel, announced the first group of Thiel Fellows, 24 people under 20 who have agreed to drop out of schoolin exchange for a $100,000 grant and mentorship to start a tech company.

More than 400 people applied. The winners include Laura Deming, 17, who is developing antiaging therapies; Faheem Zaman, 18, who is building mobile payment systems for developing countries; and John Burnham, 18, who is working on …