Saturday, May 29, 2010

From Teosinte to Maize to Corn to High-Fructose Corn Syrup in 9,000 Years

For most of the past 100,000 years Homo sapiens relied on gathering fruits, nuts, seeds, tubers and other offerings from nature in order to survive. It was a relatively recent 10,000 years ago that humans began to domesticate and raise animals and plant their own food.

Sean B. Carroll of The New York Times reported in an article on May 25th that the origin of domesticated maize has been determined through advances in DNA research. Corn has of course become an important food globally for humans, livestock and energy. Corn is the third largest food crop in the world behind rice and wheat.

In the past botanists have not found any direct ancestor of modern corn. The biological origin has thus been a bit of a mystery. However through DNA matching it is an unassuming Mexican grass called teosinte that is the Rosetta stone of this puzzle.

Teosinte of the genus Zea is a group of five grasses that grow in Central America and Southern Mexico. Its skinny ears have just a dozen kernels wrapped inside of rock-hard casings, like the tail of an armadillo. It is hard to imagine this plant as the ancestor of corn and in fact in the past it has been classified as closer to rice than to corn.

The DNA evidence taken from teosinte plants throughout its geographical range provides evidence that maize originated in the tropical Central Balsas River Valley in Southern Mexico. It is interesting that the geographical origin of maize is almost a template of the ancient civilizations of Mexico – Olmec, Zapotea, Teotihuacan, Maya, Toltecs and Aztecs. Maize was the mother food of these grand cultures and teosinte is the mother of maize.

It is amazing to me that small groups of people 9,000 years ago were able to select and grow the desirable features of teosinte and evolve it into a high yielding and easily harvested food crop. I thank them for the great American tradition of eating sweet corn with butter and salt on a summer day

And of course today huge industrial farms across our continent grow just a few highly bred varieties of corn for the production of ethanol, feed for cattle and other animals, and for the great crack cocaine food product of the 21st century – High-fructose corn syrup.

Richard Wottrich

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sustainability Begins With a Stable Population

When the United States was born in 1776 the world’s population was perhaps 700 million. At the end of our Civil War in 1865 our global population has grown to roughly 1.4 billion; doubling in less than 100 years. When I was born in 1946 the world’s population had exploded to 2.5 billion. By 1990 it had doubled again to 5.5 billion. It is expected that we will hit 7 billion humans on earth sometime in 2011. So we have grown by an order of magnitude (700 million to 7 billion) in just 235 years.

This might be fine if we were providing a reasonable standard of living for most humans on earth. But we are not. Over 1 billion people are starving to death at any point in time. Over 2 billion people do not have access to potable water or basic medicines. The fact is that almost 30% of humanity lives under conditions that any rational Western citizen would on its face deplore as unacceptable.

This is what makes the national debate about controlling illegal immigration and protecting our borders so puzzling. Any rational analysis would acknowledge that a sovereign nation must and should protect its borders. The United States has one of the most generous immigration policies in the world. We legally allow thousands of people into our country every year. And yet it is somehow deplorable to even mention the multitudes that enter illegally.

The government would have us believe that there are roughly 11 million illegal aliens in America. Even the most casual observer knows this is a laughable number. Other NGOs estimate that the figure may be as high as 20 million; roughly 6.5% of our estimated population of 309 million. Well here is a news flash for you. I would take very long odds that there are least 30 million people in this country illegally; 10% of our population. The sad fact is our government doesn’t know and doesn’t care to know.

Do the math. We just passed a health care reform bill that will dump 30 million people into the healthcare system. It is so big that nobody knows what the cost or long term implications will be. It very well may bankrupt Medicare and Medicaid. And right behind those 30 million people are another 30 million illegal aliens that congress will eventually get around to parsing into amnesty.

The United States is the third most populous nation on earth. For it not to control its borders and stop illegal immigration is folly, and a form of national suicide.
Richard Wottrich

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion

Chart of optimum ocean temperature differentials for OTEC

Chicago — For almost one hundred years the concept of Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) has been understood. OTEC generates electricity by utilizing the temperature differential between sun-warmed surface water and the cold ocean depths.

The concept of a heat engine is well understood in thermodynamics engineering, and much of the energy used around the world passes through a heat engine. A heat engine is a thermodynamic device placed between a high temperature reservoir and a low temperature reservoir. As heat flows from one to the other, the engine converts some of the heat energy to work energy. This principle is used in steam turbines and internal combustion engines, while refrigerators reverse the direction of flow of both the heat and work energy. Rather than using heat energy from the burning of fuel, OTEC power draws on temperature differences caused by the sun's warming of the ocean surface.

Surface water is pumped through a heat exchanger, where it heats a liquid chemical with a low boiling point, such as ammonia, which then expands as it vaporizes. The vaporized gas drives turbine blades that generate electricity. The gas is then piped into a condenser back in the cold deep ocean water, which chills it, returning it to its liquid state so the cycle may be repeated.

Demonstration plants have been built over the years, but OTEC has never been put into commercial operation primarily because of its high cost.

The New York Times has reported this week on Pacific Otec and its efforts with OTEC. For OTEC to be efficient, the technology requires a temperature differential of at least 20 degrees Celsius (36 F), which is available over large expanses of tropical waters. “Every additional degree will help produce 15 percent more energy,” said Philippe Dubau, General Manager of Pacific Otec, a subsidiary of Pacific Petroleum, an oil product distributor in French Polynesia, New Caledonia and Vanuatu that has been moving into the renewable energy sector.

The attractive aspect to OTEC is that it would provide steady power over a 24-hour cycle in a never ending loop, as long as the temperature differential exists.

Pacific Otec, DCNS, the French government-owned naval architect and military shipbuilder, and Xenesys, a Japanese specialist in desalination and thermal energy conversion technology, are working on a feasibility study for a commercial OTEC plant in Tahiti. Financial backing for the project has been provided by the French and French Polynesian governments.

The project envisions building an offshore OTEC platform, with a 10 megawatt-hour generating capacity, which will be connected to the Tahiti power grid and could produce enough electricity to cover 10 percent of the islands’ needs, Mr. Dubau said. The offshore OTEC plant would be 25 meters (80 feet) high and submerged 25 meters below the surface to remain stable in heavy weather. One of the main attractive features of OTEC is the compact footprint it requires as compared to solar and wind power.

As reported by The New York Times, Mr. Dubau said. “This feasibility study is not about the technology; we know it works. We also know the design of the plant is correct. But what we need to do now is to design the optimal energy system, considering local environmental data; to design the integration of the process into the chosen platform type; and, of course, study the economic feasibility of the whole project.”

Richard Wottrich

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Who Pays For Alternative Energy?

Government-owned General Motors received huge taxpayer bailout funding, so it can roll out the Chevy Volt at a subsidized cost, to be financed with tax subsidized low interest rates from the old GMAC (now Ally Bank to confuse the public), so that the Volt buyer can receive up to $8,600 in federal tax subsidies when buying the Volt. QUIZ: What is the true cost of the Chevy Volt?

There seems to be a disconnect when politicians begin to wax eloquent on Alternative Energy and “saving” the American people money. Perhaps a look at the facts will help.

Government-owned GM will release its new gasoline-electric combination Volt automobile this year. Nissan will roll out its all-electric Leaf in December.

Pricing will be fairly modest for these cars – perhaps around $25,000 to $30,000. This is because you and I will be paying for the car with a $7,500 federal tax credit. Electric car buyers will also have to pay for a $2,200 charging station, but federal tax credits will pay for half of that cost as well. Various states such as California, Georgia and Tennessee will chip in as much as $5,000 in tax credits as additional incentive.

Thus is born another tax lobby to pressure congress to keep these subsidies up. This is regressive taxation, because all Americans pay for this while initially these cars are little more than toys for wealthy hobbyists.

The fact is that if you power your car with electricity from a coal-fired power plant, you will be releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere than if you owned a Hummer. And half of American electricity is produced from coal. The fact is if you want a more efficient automobile; just add one passenger and you increase its efficiency by 50%. Or drive less.

Meanwhile over in the wind power fantasy, the federal government has authorized the Cape Wind project off shore from Nantucket. Monday this project asked for authority to enter into a 15-year purchasing contract with the utility company National Grid at a price that will cause consumers in that grid to pay $1.59 more per month on an escalating price curve.

This works out to $443 million in extra energy costs, even though this project will contribute very little power to the grid. It does however help the state to meet an arbitrary alternative energy mandate enforced by the state’s Green Communities Act, so the consumer be damned.

And so it goes. Just as the ethanol industry has developed into a huge federal tax subsidy machine to generate profits for private companies, so too will electric vehicles and wind power. Facts are stubborn things.

Richard Wottrich