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Ethanol from Carbon Monoxide April 24, 2007

Posted by Brian Angliss in Energy & the Environment.
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LanzaTech of Auckland, New Zealand, announced today that it had acquired funding from a founder of Sun Microsystems to scale up their ethanol production technology. What makes LanzaTech’s technology interesting is that it’s not based on yeast digesting sugars like corn and sugarcane ethanol is (and that cellulosic ethanol probably would be), but instead uses bacteria to convert carbon monoxide into ethanol.

This is a radical departure from the current standards because, as this NYTimes article mentions, carbon monoxide is an industrial waste product. While the NYTimes mentions the production of steel, other sources of carbon monoxide include chemical plants and power plants. Unfortunately, the most carbon monoxide emissions come from the transportation sector (cars, trucks, airplanes, etc.) instead of the energy or industrial sectors, and it probably won’t be feasible to put an ethanol generator on every car made anytime soon.

This company, and their technology, is something to keep an eye on.

[Crossposted from Scholars and Rogues]


Thoughts on Virginia Tech April 19, 2007

Posted by @Doc in Blacksburg, Columbine, Education, school discipline, Virginia Tech.
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I won’t sit here and pretend that EducationF1rst would have prevented this week’s tragedy in Blacksburg. Clearly there are pathologies here that no system in a nation of 300 million can expect to catch all the time. I like to think that a broad program of reform addressing curriculum, community investment, discipline and teacher quality would make these things at least a little less likely, but even if it did how would I prove it?

All I can do is acknowledge that things went horribly wrong, and in doing so take a moment to point people toward a few things that perhaps provide insight and support, as well as maybe an idea or two about practical steps we should look into.

  • Jo Scott-Coe properly questions the limits of standardization and wonders about the corrosive effects of our misguided emphasis on piecemeal tactics instead of a truly holistic strategy.
  • Jim Booth, whose wife works with the spouse of one of the victims, searches for solace in the words of our master poets.
  • My good friend Dr. Denny wonders, as I imagine a lot of professors are right about now, what would he do?
  • Robert Silvey expresses his frustration at America’s gun culture.
  • Gavin Chait, who lives in Cape Town, offers America a little perspective by noting that we’re not really as violent a culture as we sometimes imagine we are.
  • Being an entrepreneur and partner in a firm that sells technology that could have potentially helped alert students of the danger bearing down on them, I ask whether more lives might have been saved had the university acted last September. I also take time to consider Iraq, which has 3.5 Virginia Techs every day.
  • Finally, I offer to the entire Tech community and the residents of the great state of Virginia my deepest sympathies. I live in Colorado and was here during Columbine. It felt like somebody had killed my family – a feeling that was never really rational, but it was very real and it’s one I’ll never forget. We’re thinking about you.

Cellulosic Ethanol April 17, 2007

Posted by Brian Angliss in Energy & the Environment, technology.
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Ethanol is all the rage – President Bush wants us to produce billions of gallons of the stuff by 2050. But ethanol from corn (then most common source of the fuel additive in the U.S.) is already increasing the global price of corn and thus increasing food prices both here at home and in countries as diverse as China, India, and Mexico. The increased food prices are already generating some criticism from people like Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez, but there will less shrill and more rational criticism coming from other quarters soon enough.

I’ve discussed ethanol previously and pointed out that the only way that largely switching over from oil to ethanol makes any sense is if we can start producing ethanol from sources of cellulose instead of feed products. Some sources of cellulosic ethanol include corn stalks and cobs, bagasse left over from the processing of sugar cane, wood chips left over from any number of wood products, and even good old fashioned grass. Well, today’s New York Times ran a story on the technological and business challenges to large-scale cellulosic ethanol production. In a nutshell, the enzymes needed to break cellulose into sugars that yeast can then ferment into ethanol are too expensive at this time. But now there is finally a much needed influx of capitol to fund breaking through the technological and biological barriers to solving this problem.

It’s too early to say for sure whether the organizations and individuals involved will be successful, but I hope so. I’d like ethanol to be a part of the massive equation that gets us to a decarbonized economy, but only if ethanol makes economic and technological sense, and only if it can be done without government subsidies. And until the issues discussed in the NYTimes article above are addressed, our taxes would be better spent on other projects that give more bang for the buck.

[Crossposted from The Daedalnexus]

Automotive X Prize April 8, 2007

Posted by Brian Angliss in Energy & the Environment, technology.

A few years ago, a group was formed to give a prize to the first commercial, non-governmental team to get into space twice in a single week using the same vehicle and carrying at least three people (or the mass equivlalent). This prize was the Ansari X Prize, and the $10 million prize was awarded to Mojave Aerospace Ventures and Scaled Composites LLC, builders of SpaceShipOne. The goal of the X Prize foundation was to use prize money to get smart, out-of-the-box thinkers to dream up wild ideas that could be applied to reduce the cost of human space flight. While it hasn’t done this yet, there are a lot of indications that it will, since the Ansari X Prize has spawned off Spaceport America in New Mexico and Virgin Galactic, a budding space tourism subsidiary of Virgin Atlantic.

The X Prize Foundation’s mission is “To bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity,” and they plan to do so with a series of X Prizes along the lines of the Ansari X Prize for space flight. The X Prize Foundation has just offered its third X Prize: the Automotive X Prize. (more…)

Evolving a culture of learning April 6, 2007

Posted by @Doc in 2008 Campaign, culture of learning, Education, educational reform.
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The biggest challenge we face is one of momentum: America is not, and never has been, an intellectual culture. We do not, however much we might protest, live in a nation that treasures teaching and learning. On the list of things that we care about, education falls well to the south of things like entertainment and sports. Worse, in Instant GratificatioNation there is little tolerance for long-term solutions. We want it, we want it now, and if you don’t give it to us you will pay.

On the learning front, America is an object at rest, and objects at rest tend to remain that way until acted on by some force. The good news is that if we’re able to set our society in motion, that momentum then becomes something we can leverage in our long drive toward a sustainable culture of education.

The Culture of Education plank is now posted.

Revisiting Nuclear Non-Proliferation April 6, 2007

Posted by Brian Angliss in Energy & the Environment, Foreign Policy, technology.

United States energy policy is intertwined with foreign policy, global heating, and public health. The strategic energy plank I’ve written for Dr. Slammy’s campaign will be posted some time in the next few weeks, but one of the tactical realizations that informed my broader thought process was how we could power our civilization while weaning ourselves off coal, oil, and natural gas. Nuclear energy is the only candidate energy supply currently widely available that will be able to meet our energy needs. Unfortunately, widing access to sustainable nuclear energy will eventually run afoul of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

My argument for revisiting how the NPT works, and for dramatically increasing the enforcement power of the IAEA, is presented below.


What Makes Teddy Run – Follow the Money…. April 5, 2007

Posted by Jim Booth in Domestic Policy, Education, educational reform, No Child Left Behind, No Child Left Untested, rich/poor gap.

Dr. Slammy did a pretty good take-down on Teddy Kennedy in his recent post on Kennedy’s support of No Test Publisher Child Left Behind. But Kennedy is only a role player in the debacle that is our current education policy.

The truth of the matter is that Dubya’s education policy (remember, friends, he was going to be the “education president” before Andy Card whispered in his ear that terrorists had flown planes into the World Trade Center as he sat reading to 2nd graders in a Florida elementary school) is based primarily on family connection he has with the text and test publishing industry through his cousins the McGraws. And with brother Neil making a mint off NCLB with his software company that sells test prep materials to school districts across America, well, it’s just one big happy family, now isn’t it?

As Stephen Metcalf’s now well known article in The Nation illustrates, this is not some haphazard approach to education reform. It is a carefully planned strategy with a specific aim:

“The…Bush testing regime emphasizes minimal competence along a narrow range of skills, with an eye toward satisfying the low end of the labor market. All this sits well with a business community whose first preoccupation is ‘global competitiveness’: a community most comfortable thinking in terms of inputs (dollars spent on public schools) in relation to outputs (test scores). No one disputes that schools must inculcate the skills necessary for economic survival. But does it follow that the theory behind public schooling should be overwhelmingly economic? One of the reform movement’s founding documents is Reinventing Education: Entrepreneurship in America’s Public Schools, by Lou Gerstner, chairman of IBM. Gerstner describes schoolchildren as human capital, teachers as sellers in a marketplace and the public school system as a monopoly. Predictably, CEOs bring to education reform CEO rhetoric: stringent, intolerant of failure, even punitive–hence the word ‘sanction,’ as if some schools had been turning away weapons inspectors.”

This kind of approach to the problem shows clearly that economic self-interest is perhaps the only ideology driving what seems clearly to be this administration’s anti-“educated citizenry” agenda.Ted Kennedy may be a renowned Dem. But he’s a rich guy first. That “loose confederation of millionaires and billionaires, baby” that Paul Simon refers to is not a fiction. His support of NCLB, given his background as a champion of the less fortunate in American society, should raise red flags for thinking Americans….

I refer you to Deep Throat’s famous directive to Woodward and Bernstein (back when they were journalists and not bobbing their heads in the laps of the power brokers) – “Follow the money….”

ETS “perfect storm report” April 3, 2007

Posted by @Doc in Education, educational reform, rich/poor gap, test scores.

I haven’t had a chance to parse this in detail, but the top line sounds about right:

Our nation is in the midst of a perfect storm, according to ETS researchers — and the forecast is grim — unless we invest in policies that will change our perilous course. (more…)

Ted Kennedy doing his part in the War on Education April 3, 2007

Posted by @Doc in 2008 Campaign, Education, No Child Left Behind, No Child Left Untested, Ted Kennedy.

Our much-beloved senior senator from the state of Massachusetts is stumping for a massive No Child Left Untested Behind re-up, and we ought to all be concerned. As the footer to the article notes, Teddy was one of the authors of the act. He’s kind enough to acknowledge that it’s not perfect legislation and does point to important concerns (you need to fund the damned mandates, for instance), and I think we all agree with the stated goals – stronger standards, better teachers, a system that prepares students for the challenges we’re all going to face in the world, etc.

Then again, we all agree that we’d like world peace, too. (more…)

Discipline plank posted April 3, 2007

Posted by @Doc in 2008 Campaign, Education, school discipline.
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One of the most pressing concerns I see in our educational system today is a basic one – some schools are dangerous places. Even where the threat of physical danger isn’t great, administrators and teachers are often asked to manage and warehouse disruptive students whose presence degrades the effectiveness of the teaching environment in ways that materially harm other students.

This can’t continue.

Review the discipline plank here and let me know what you think.