June 17, 2020: Covid 19 Mortality Reduction Breakthrough
A recent study in Oxford, England, has concluded that a commonly available low cost steroid reduced mortality by a third in Covid-19 patients required to be placed on ventilators.
In a randomized control trial, 2104 patients received 6 mg of dexamethosone either orally or intravenously daily for ten days. The outcome was compared with 4321 patients receiving the standard of care. The 28-day mortality in the control group was 41% for those on ventilators and 25% on those simply on oxygen. Dexamethasone reduced the mortality in the ventilator group by 33% (p=0.0003), while the reduction was 25% (p=0.0021) in the group with just oxygen. No change was observed for the cohort with less severe outcomes. They are careful to note that the paper has not yet been peer reviewed. Some sensitivity on that point after two Covid-19 related papers were retracted a few days ago, one each in the prestigious Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine.
The statistics (low p numbers) are excellent, especially on the ventilator group. The takeaway is that a widely available and inexpensive (but still a prescription drug) steroid is having such a dramatic effect. There are no issues with needing Phase 1 clinical trials; this drug is in common use. Speaking of drugs in common use, the FDA has just retracted the emergency authorization for the off-label use of hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19 purposes. This is the antimalarial drug famously touted by President Trump and seemingly being taken by him prophylactically.
The scorecard stands as follows. The antiviral drug remdesivir, reduces the severity of the illness. This probably means fewer on ventilators and fewer on oxygen. Ten daily doses of an inexpensive steroid reduces the mortality by 33% for those that get to the ventilator stage. A different set of folks, the ones who need only oxygen, have 25% of deaths prevented. These are big numbers. Together, the two procedures ought to make dent in the mortality.
And more to come. Until there is a vaccine with high availability, our best bet is to reduce the severity.
May 21, 2020: Support for Covid-19 Vaccine Feasibility
A recent study demonstrated robust immune response in patients recovering from Covid-19 illness. An easier to read press report is here. The principal target of vaccines is the “spike protein” part of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which in turn is the name of the virus that causes the Covid-19 disease. The structure of the virus and the location of the spike are described in an earlier blog on this site. The spike sticks out beyond the lipid layer and is the part which joins with the ACE 2 receptor on the host human cell.
The study was on 20 patients who had recovered from the illness. CD8+ and CD4+ T cells specific to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein were found in 70% and 100%, respectively, of the patients. T cells are an immune response function. The two types kill infected cells (or cancer cells, for that matter) with different mechanisms, the CD8+ being more direct in the action of killing the cells. The presence of both types following recovery from the Covid-19 illness, with the CD4+ in abundance, is a very promising sign for vaccine development.
Professor Crotty, one of the lead investigators, also made a comment that addresses, and provides a measure of support for, the theory on herd immunity. Herd immunity is usually relied upon in conjunction with a vaccine program, but is currently being attempted by Sweden in a controversial public health move. Crotty said, “People were really worried that COVID-19 doesn’t induce immunity, and reports about people getting re-infected reinforced these concerns, but knowing now that the average person makes a solid immune response should largely put those concerns to rest.”
A further interesting, and encouraging, finding was that SARS-CoV-2−reactive CD4+ T cells were found in nearly 40 – 60% persons unexposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This suggests “cross-reactive” T cell recognition from other more benign coronaviruses such as the common cold. This could be another piece of the puzzle regarding the observation of lower incidences of the disease in some countries and sub-populations. The observation could also help in directions taken by vaccine development.
May 6, 2020: Should Schools Reopen Soon
A recent issue of the magazine Economist advocates the opening of schools as a valid and necessary direction to take. President Trump has advocated this as well, as have some states. One of the key the points made in the article is that, unlike the common flu, children are not more susceptible to get this disease than adults. Certainly, the severity is substantially less in children. Nor is there evidence that children are transmitting agents, as they are for the common flu. An excerpt on this point from the article is reproduced below.
Researchers in Iceland and the Netherlands have not found a single case in which a child brought the virus into their family. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the European Union’s public-health agency, said last week that child-to-adult transmission “appears to be uncommon”.
The criticism of this finding is obvious. Schools closures were very prompt, so that avenue of transfer was damped down. But other social contact persisted to some degree and the absoluteness of the Iceland and Dutch findings are interesting.
The article is a very good read. It gets into the pros and cons of which age groups to open first and next. Also discussed is the disproportionate negative impact of closures on the poor. This ranges from limited remote access to school lunches and school-based vaccination programs. Zoom learning has little meaning if you have limited or no Wi-Fi. Nor is remote learning as effective for the youngest as it is for the older.
The article also causes us to muse on the more generic point that lifting of restrictions ought not to be all or nothing. Staging can be important, as also the careful selection of the parts of the economy that can more safely be opened. Informed risk is something we live with all the time.
APRIL 30, 2020: ANTIVIRAL MAY BE “THE STANDARD OF CARE”
Finally, some good news on the Covid 19 front. A National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (part of the NIH) clinical trial has preliminarily concluded that remdesivir, a Gilead Sciences antiviral drug was successful in decreasing the severity of the disease. 1063 hospitalized patients in the trial were given either the drug or a placebo. Patients on remdesivir recovered in 11 days, compared to 15 days for those on the placebo and normal care.
Notably, the normally reticent Dr. Fauci labeled the results “highly significant”, although still cautioning the awaiting of fuller results from the study. Most interestingly, he characterized it as “the standard of care”, high praise indeed. The significance of that is not all that great, in my view, because in a fast-moving situation such as this, the standards are liable to shift. It just means that, in his view, this drug should be given automatically until another appears with more promise.
He continued, “The data shows (sic) that remdesivir has a clear-cut, significant, positive effect in diminishing the time to recovery.” He likened the event to a turning point in 1986 on the battle with HIV. No way he says all this unless he is reasonably convinced. This is important because two other smaller studies had mixed results, one in Europe and one in China.
The implications are certainly for hospital bed availability when recoveries are 31% faster. But there is also a hint of better outcomes on mortality. Fewer of those on the drug died than on the placebo, but direct causality to the drug could not be inferred. Until a vaccine comes into use, antivirals to reduce severity are our best bet. Gilead’s own testing (without controls) shows that 5 days of treatment may be enough instead of 10. If confirmed, available production will cover more patients.
On a local note, the drug originated in Dr. Ralph Baric’s group at the Gillings School of Public Health at UNC. Of further note is that the biomedical research community has been looking for broad spectrum drugs such as this since the emergence of Ebola and SARS. This is one reason that viable drugs are becoming available in such a short space of time. The same goes for vaccines in development.
April 27, 2020: COMORBIDITIES KEY TO SEVERE COVID 19 OUTCOMES
The data are starting to collect on the risk factors for this disease. A recent story clarified the symptoms to include additional detail on pulmonary distress (not just shortness of breath). The story I am citing today is one on comorbidities. Earlier I had reported on the surprising statistic that asthma and even chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) were underrepresented in the severely ill population.
Now, there is a story on New York data on comorbidities most associated with hospital admissions. The study only considered patients in serious enough condition requiring hospitalization. From a statistical standpoint, the 5700-patient group is relatively small. Yet, the figures are startling enough to take notice and possibly even be guided. This is going to be a constant refrain: small study published, with caveats, in order to get the information out. The results show that 94% of the patients admitted to a hospital had chronic health problems. Equally tellingly, 88% had two or more of these. The prominent comorbidities (other underlying disease) were hypertension (56.6%), obesity, defined as BMI >30 (41.7%) and diabetes (33.8%). The original paper published in the Journal of American Medical Association, cautions regarding the limited nature of the study, with patients from just the New York metropolitan area, for a period March 1 through April 4, 2020. The paper recognizes the possible effect on patients of ACE inhibitors (as we discussed in an earlier post in this column) but was unable to investigate that, likely because of limitations on how the data were acquired. An interesting additional observation was that nearly two thirds hospitalized presented without a fever. This adds to the list of diagnostics, short of a test for the virus, that have fallen short as useful for screening, say in airports.
An important takeaway from this and the earlier asthma observation is that these statistics apply only to the most severe conditions, hospitalizations in this one and mortality in the previous. Catching the disease appears to play no favorites, but severity does.
APRIL 21, 2020: COVID 19: HEART DISEASE BAD, ASTHMA NOT SO MUCH
A recent piece in Science News sheds some light on why patients with heart disease are particularly vulnerable to extreme outcomes. For some time, the underlying conditions for people at risk included age, respiratory ailments such as asthma, cardiovascular ailments, diabetes and immune compromised conditions. The cited story points to hypertension as a major culprit for disease severity. In Italy, in a cohort of 355 who died, 76% had hypertension.
As I had described in a previous blog, the virus enters the cell by first attaching to a receptor (for a more complete explanation see the linked blog). This receptor is called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, or ACE2. ACE2 is found on lung cells, but also on heart muscle and the cells that line blood vessels. These are additional entry points for the virus beyond just the lungs.
Unfortunately, the situation may be even worse for some patients with hypertension. One of the treatments involves having the patient take ACE inhibitors to block an ACE protein different from ACE2. The objective is to stop that ACE from helping make a protein that raises blood pressure in the arteries. Studies in animals suggest that ACE inhibitor drugs may lead to more ACE2 protein on heart cells. No studies have been conducted on humans yet, nor are there statistics on the medication being taken by those who died. But the worry is there and could explain observed disease severity. Dr. Fauci, the foremost expert in the US, is quoted in the article as saying: “If you look at the mechanistic rationale for concern . . . . it’s there”, though it’s “an extrapolation”. He suggests the need to get human data, fast.
On the good news side of the ledger, asthma appears to be getting something of a free pass. Originally listed as a risk factor of concern, it is showing up as a minor comorbidity (existing underlying condition prior to contracting COVID 19). In New York, the epicenter of the US pandemic, it is not listed in the top ten comorbidities associated with patient death. A comment in the journal Lancet says, “. . . it is striking that both diseases appear to be under-represented in the comorbidities reported for patients with COVID-19”. The other disease they refer to in “both” is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). They note that this was also the case with SARS, which, perhaps coincidentally, also has ACE2 as the receptor for cell entry. As with all such information, it is subject to revision when more thorough studies are conducted. But, as prevalent as is asthma in the population, the observations offer a measure of comfort to quite a few folks.
APRIL 16, 2020: ANTIBODY TESTING OFFERS PROMISE
Recently, America’s Doctor Anthony Fauci referred to COVID 19 antibody testing and dropped hints regarding their utility. A piece by Katarina Zimmer gives a balanced view of the potential of this technique (be warned, it is dense with facts). A COVID 19 patient produces antibodies to fight the virus, and these usually remain in the bloodstream after the infection has been defeated. In principle, therefore, the presence of these antibodies is proof that the infection had appeared at some point. As an identifier of infection, it is definitive. But the jury is still out on whether it protects against secondary infections. In measles it certainly does, for years.
The utility of the antibody testing begins at whether there is reason to believe that folks with antibodies are not likely to acquire the disease again. Dr. Fauci said he’d be “willing to bet anything that people who recover are really protected against reinfection.” If antibodies are reasonably predictive of a previous bout with the disease, then a “certificate of immunity”, an instrument sought by many as a route to economic normalcy, is more viable. Data to date are comforting in this regard. In a preprint of the study of 175 patients, almost all had detectable antibodies. SARS behaved in this way, MERS did not. Some experiments have shown that antibodies extracted from recovering COVID 19 patients were successful in preventing the virus from entering target cells.
The economy is being devastated. Leaders of all nations are struggling with the public health versus economic collapse conundrum. Any science that allows a more rapid return to a viable economy, even to a new normal one, should be on fast forward. Also, risks may have to be taken to balance rewards. Scientific certainty may have to take a backseat to informed hunches. And then the data taken and followed closely for potential pivots.
April 16, 2020
April 11, 2020: COVID 19 GORES THE UNICORNS
A recent issue of the Economist has a story on the effect of the pandemic on startups, and unicorns in particular. Unicorns are defined as privately held firms with valuations of over USD 1 billion (bn). Their name derived from the belief that these species would be rare and wondrous. Shortly after the coining of the term in 2013, every startup steed looked to grow a horn. Success was measured in those terms in the bragging alleys of Silicon Valley.
Investors rewarded revenue growth, with profits in the distant future. For a technology with the potential to be seminal, this made some sense, especially if patent protection was sparse. Occupying space and mindshare deterred competition. This required a high proportion of reinvestment at the expense of declaring profits. Then startups without clear technological differentiation (don’t think Uber, it has a clever business model, but strongly technology enabled) attempted to emulate. According to the Economist story they were headed for a fall anyway. But the pandemic took care of it.
The “shelter at home” that pervaded most countries put paid to the hopes of outfits that looked for people to be on the move. One such was Lime, a scooter rental company worth USD 2.4bn which halted services in Europe and America. On the other hand, companies such as DoorDash, a USD 13bn food delivery company saw its market expand from couch potatoes to Michelin star habitués. But those that relied on growth were inflicted with a Covid 19 conjured depression. The revenue treadmill ground to a near-halt. Only the deepest of pockets could sustain businesses relying on steady growth to not go backwards. In the opinion of the Economist writer, many will not make it. More importantly, the allure of the “gospel of growth” may take a back seat to the more traditional “path to profitability”. The implication is that the pandemic merely accelerated an already sure outcome.
A potentially interesting takeaway from the situation is that certain businesses, which thrive in this constrained world, may continue to grow in a post-Covid future. Innovators would do well to embrace enablers for these areas, although crystal balls will need polishing. Any that succeed may well take on the form of another mythical creature, this one rising from the ashes of a pandemic’s scourge. Each will be known as a phoenix.
April 11, 2020
PS Interesting Reads is back after a long slumber!
May 3, 2015: Fish Food
In the April 25 issue of the Economist is a fish tale, but not about one that got away, at least not yet. A company in California is attempting to commercialize a fish food derived from bacteria that consume methane. These are in the class known as methanotrophs. That bacteria exist which consume hydrocarbons is well known. Apparently the Norwegian oil company Statoil invented the concept of using them as fish food. These would replace fish-meal made currently from more valuable ingredient. The bacteria chomp on the methane in reactors with nitrogen present in the form of ammonia, which allows the formation of amino acids which are precursors of protein. The protein is then the fish food.
Of interest is that they chose not to use genetically engineered bacteria for fear of public backlash, reasonable or not. But in my lay opinion this would largely have been unnecessary anyway. Turns out that most species of such bacteria very easily and by choice consume the smaller molecules in the hydrocarbon chain. In fact when there is an oil spill in the ocean, or when there are oil seeps on the ocean floor, the hydrocarbons making it to shore are the big molecules. This is why the beaches will have tar balls, stuff bacteria preferentially eschew. The converse is that they love little molecules such as methane and ethane.
January 23, 2014: Natural gas locomotives may prove cheaper, cleaner
A recent story discusses the possibility of diesel displacement in trains by natural gas. The basic premise is cost reduction, even though the emissions benefits are mentioned. We could expect that gas at $4 per MMBTU will convert to LNG for a net cost in the neighborhood of $7 to 8.
A key hurdle is that LNG has a use it or lose it aspect; it is kept cold by evaporative cooling. Long distance transport at -161 C is not economical. But a number of major outfits including GE, Shell and Linde are reported close to delivering mini LNG production units and 100 times smaller than conventional units. These can be close to refueling locations.
One feature of gas use is that it needs spark ignition, which reduces efficiency. They refer to this in the story and suggest “diesel can provide the spark needed to ignite natural gas”. They may be referring to a Westport innovation where diesel is compression ignited to then burn the natural gas, which is the bulk of the fuel. This allows the efficient high compression diesel type engine to be used. But I am led to believe this concept is encountering teething problems.
September 4, 2013: Regional Variations in the Benefits of Renewable Energy
The August issue of the journal Science draws attention to an interesting paper recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It posits the notion that renewable energy ought to be produced in areas which maximize the social and environmental benefits. This very much means not automatically putting solar where the sun shines longer or wind energy where it blows more often. An interesting policy suggestion is to have the tax subsidies variable with the appropriateness of the region. A more detailed, and yet approachable, summary of the paper can be found here.
August 26, 2013: Now the Church of England joins the Fracking Fray
The UK is in the midst of a serious debate on the merits of shale gas exploitation. The country has some time back taken a position of displacing coal with natural gas. This had been with an expectation of massive north sea reserves, which never quite materialized. So it became a net importer of gas after having been self sufficient in the coal alternative. So, when shale gas was discovered by Cuadrilla Resources, people started taking sides. Prime Minister Cameron somewhat surprisingly has come out in full support and the Treasury is offering significant incentives.
Now the Church of England is reported to be in full support of shale gas. Their message is a measured one, suggesting a careful examination of the prospects while respecting the public interest. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see a church enter the fray. In one sense it is appropriate. The Church must consider all elements that affect the wellbeing of their members. Individual parishes will no doubt break ranks, as already appears to be happening.
July 31, 2013: As Goes the F-150 So Goes the Country (or at least Texas!)
The most popular pickup truck in the country is going semi-green. The Ford F-150 will be offered with a compressed natural gas (CNG) option starting with the 2014 model year, which essentially means now. The announcement is important as a leadership stance. They report that on a gallon equivalent basis CNG will cost between $1 and $2 per gallon, as compared to well over $3.50 for regular gasoline.
One of these days when CNG is used in high compression engines, the comparison will be with premium gasoline, priced even higher. The roughly $10,000 extra cost is expected to pay back in less than three years. Research in innovative storage of CNG ought to reduce the cost of storing and also of filling the gas. And, oh by the way, the emissions are dramatically less. Cheaper and better for the environment. That’s an aisle crosser if ever there was one.
July 29, 2013: The Methane Leak Saga Goes On
The EPA recently reported on methane emissions in general, and leaks from natural gas production and distribution in particular. Not surprisingly this has caused a lot of controversy. Their report indicates that industry has taken measures to improve the situation recently. Nevertheless, people like Cornell professor Howarth simply disagree with the EPA. Seems like nobody wants to wait for the definitive study sponsored by EDF, preliminary results from which ought to be out any month now. EPA regulations forbidding flaring or release at rigs will kick in January 2015. In a recent NY Times op ed, a Howarth colleague does not believe this will do any good. And so it goes. Lots of ink unencumbered by too much new data. We will have to wait for the EDF report to get that.
April 2, 2012: Volunteer Opportunity!
The NC School of Science and Math (a UNC institution) has started a course in renewable energy. This renewable energy program at NCSSM ties in nicely with RTEC’s efforts to build an Energy Engineering program at the local universities. NCSSM houses some of the top science and mathematics students in our state, and the students from this program may be among the first to enroll in En E.
The school is actively looking for scientists and engineers who might be interested in giving a renewable energy-related presentation at NCSSM, and/or is willing to serve as mentors for students in the field of renewable energy. We are looking for a speaker on wind energy, and I have one student who would strongly like to assist in any capacity with solar cell research. If you know of anyone who might be interested within or outside RTEC, please forward them this email. All interested parties can email Ms. Dahl Winters at email@example.com.
March 19, 2012: A Different Take on the Resource Curse
A recent issue of the Economist has a discussion of the so-called Resource Curse. A 1995 paper by Harvard economists Sachs and Warner is credited with first underlining this problem. The original premise roughly was that countries with bountiful natural resources misused them to the general detriment of economic growth. This latest commentary on the issue suggests a variant. Two Swiss economists draw a distinction between abundance (having lots of energy or minerals) and dependence (having these be a major component of trade). They demonstrate that countries with good management translate the abundance into a balanced portfolio and so do not suffer the curse of reduced rate of economic growth. Texas and the city of Houston in particular, were heavily dependent on energy in the eighties and suffered during the oil downturn. In the case of Houston, the growth of the health and space industries was important to dampen the petroleum swings. Texas as a whole is now 9% dependent on oil and gas, compared to 20% in the eighties. Strong institutions rich in resources keep the Curse at bay.
February 20, 2012: The death of Ethanol Subsidies
It came without any fanfare. The tariffs and subsidies associated with ethanol simply died on December 31, 2011. The Brazilians noticed. The combination of these two policy instruments had put their product at about a dollar a gallon disadvantage for export to the US. A recent story in the Economist discusses the consequences. Aside from saving the US tax payer $6 billion annually, the reversal, or really the non continuance of the policy could have a significant effect on the Brazilian sugar industry. The story however does not discuss another element that likely comes into play. If Brazilian sugar is similarly not subject to tariffs, this could accelerate US efforts to produce drop in fuels using sugar as a starting point, as we discussed earlier. These fuels overcome the calorific disadvantage of ethanol.
September 14, 2011: Can we expect natural gas pricing to be stable?
A recent post by Greentech Media discusses the issue of natural gas replacing various current fuels. They quote our Director in this article but neglect to mention a piece that he wrote recently which directly addresses the questions: Can we expect natural gas pricing to be stable? The American Oil and Gas Reporter article discusses the economic viability of coal substitution. But the part germane to the Greentech Media post is the prediction of shale gas-enabled stable and moderate pricing for a long time.
July 5, 2011: Energy Consumption on the Rise
In a recent issue of the Economist, it discusses BP’s energy report. Unsurprising is the fact that energy consumption went up in 2010. But the rate of increase of 5.6% is the largest since 1973. Again, not hugely surprising because of the depth of the recession out of which we bounced. But of note is that it outpaced the global GDP rise of 4.9% in the same period.
Oil production increased 2.2% and the consumption went up 3.1%. We have discussed our belief of demand crossing over supply in 8 to 10 years. The data from last year appear to be putting us firmly on that path. This will be abetted by new-found prosperity in the populations of India and China, leading to more car ownership and use.
July 1, 2011: A Harvard Take on Energy Alternatives
A recent piece from a Harvard source is worth reading. It covers a lot of ground all the way from the imperative to reducing imported oil to the viability of electric cars. Many of the points are in general accord with views expressed in our Breakfast Forums as well as those posted by me. This is about as comprehensive a short piece as I have seen, so I am drawing attention to it.
One aspect that the author gets into re EV’s is the inherent efficiency. He mentions only the direct efficiency of the motor in comparison with internal combustion engines. We will shortly post a blog detailing a full calculation of essentially “a well to wheel” analysis. We are finding that an electric vehicle uses about half the energy of a conventional vehicle. That is so striking that the math is being re-examined!
June 30, 2011: DO ELECTRIC CARS NEED A CHANGE IN BEHAVIOR?
At our last Breakfast Forum we discussed this question. Much of the issue centers on Range Anxiety, roughly defined as the fear of running out of juice
while on the road. This applies primarily to the all electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf, because the Chevy Volt and like vehicles have back up gasoline engines. Incidentally, we had all assumed this backup was just to charge the generators and that electric drive still turned the wheels. This is known in the parlance as serial drive. Earlier this year GM dribbled out the news that in some circumstances it went into parallel drive: the gasoline engine was turning the wheels.
The significance of the foregoing is that a serial drive is a simpler machine. No gear box for one. Also, the gasoline engine to charge the battery is necessarily smaller than one needed to put torque directly on wheels. Ultimately, the all electric is the simplest device, but does have issue with range anxiety.
An interesting read from The Shelton Group opine that people given free choice will charge whenever they please and this could cause chaos on the grid. While that is a possible, the best way to avoid this is through the pocketbook. Many states, including ours, already have time of day pricing. So if nighttime price is a third or fourth of peak daytime price, very few people will do what was cited in the blog post mentioned.
June 28, 2011: SHALE GAS DEBATE HEATS UP
In the last few weeks, the debate around shale gas has heated up. Much of the rhetoric was occasioned by a paper by Vengosh and Jackson at Duke on evidence for methane contamination of drinking water. The latest is a Wall Street Journal editorial in defense of the industry that has its facts somewhat right but completely misses some key environmental issues. The missed points center on the freshwater withdrawals and the potential for pollution, if the flow-back water is disposed of improperly. Both these issues have previously been discussed in my earlier blogs.
May 2, 2011: The Real Cost of Gasoline
Many of us have been aware that the externalities connected with oil imports adds to the real cost of oil derivatives such as gasoline and diesel. The Cato Institute among others has written about this. For the first time, an easy to understand computation of the real cost of gasoline has been done by our own Research Triangle Solar Fuels Institute at RTI International. In most states today that cost is in the vicinity of $10. Do something about this.
Reducing consumption of oil is a start. Do you still idle your engine when waiting to pick someone up? Be aware that for many years now the engine design does not extract a penalty for on/off cycling. Kill that engine even if you are waiting just fifteen seconds. One reason for the fuel efficiency of hybrid cars is that they do that automatically even at traffic stops.
April 28, 2011: Spent Fuel Storage
A recent report from MIT is worth reading. A New York Times summary indicates that the report suggest storage rather than fuel reprocessing. We have opined in our blog entitled Fukushima and Beyond that the Fukushima Daiichi disaster was largely driven by the failure of cooling water, in turn due to power failure. We believe that the severely overloaded distributed repositories of spent fuel could suffer the same fate if not managed. The MIT report’s conclusions are generally in keeping with this. They also suggest dry storage as an alternative. They agree this can only be contemplated after the spent fuel is less hot, around five years after wet storage. But all of this underlines our own previous conclusions: the Fukushima disaster is a wake-up call with regard to spent fuel storage. We desperately need a national policy on this matter.
April 15, 2011: Electric Vehicle Battery Advance
A recent story in the Economist details a paper in Nature Nanotechnology by Paul Braun and colleagues at University of Illinois. As we have discussed before, electric vehicle batteries need advances in three areas: higher capacity, lower cost per kWh and faster charging. The last gives you fast discharge as well, which translates into high acceleration without a penalty on battery life.
In the area of cost, we need the current estimated cost of $500 per kWh to come down below about $200. There is good reason to believe that this will happen. Currently, this is the single biggest hurdle to wide adoption because at current economics, the cost of a battery for a Nissan Leaf is the same order as the rest of the car. Higher capacity for roughly the same weight and volume targets the consumer proclivity known as “range anxiety”: the fear of running out of juice.
The fast charge/discharge is the most technically challenging. The recent work by Brown and colleagues attacks the problem in the usual way: move ions rapidly in and out of the cathode material. An earlier Interesting Read cited work where the cathode was manufactured in a non-stoichiometric composition, allowing for an outside layer crystallizing separately. This outside layer acted as a sponge for ions both in and out bound. Yet, another Interesting Read citation was for work done at MIT using carbon nanotubes on the surface of the cathode to achieve the same general objective.
The work cited today approaches the problem in an innovative but likely expensive way. They create a lattice of nickel with interconnected porosity by first creating a mold, if you will, of a low melting polymer. After the nickel is infused, the polymer is melted out, leaving the nickel lattice as the host for the cathodic lithium compound. This has similarities to the age-old investment casting process for making complex metal shapes in a casting, also known as the Lost Wax process. It is a favorite of artistically inclined jewelers.
March 15, 2011: High Oil Prices Impact More than Just the Gas Pump
The recent article in the Economist points to a small but important market segment affected by high oil prices: propylene. This is the basic building block of many consumer goods, most prominently polypropylene. This material is ubiquitous in the home – roofing, carpets, and squeeze bottles to name a few. Today, the price of oil is roughly four times that of natural gas on the basis of energy content. Propylene is usually a bi-product of ethylene production from oil refining. With gas so cheap, ethylene is being made from gas, unfortunately this process yields little propylene. Supply drops and prices go up more than double in two years. Expect more fuel switching when feasible. We believe that the oil/gas price ratio will get worse over the years, causing a secular shift from oil to natural gas.
December 7, 2010: The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recently issued a report to the President suggesting a number of measures to improve US competitiveness in energy. Among the recommendations:
- A Quadrennial Energy Review, an analog to the Quadrennial Defense Review that has been very successful
- A substantial increase in research and development funding, with associated models for revenue generation to fund it
- Steps to develop a workforce uniquely suited to the energy industry
- A suggestion to step up social science research in support of energy initiatives
The last two are an excellent fit with recent RTEC thinking as evidenced in our blog on Energy Engineering and the need for social science research in support of clean energy.
December 6, 2010: A recent announcement by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) addresses one of main shortcomings of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, the efficiency to capture energy from the sun. Today the economics of PV for bulk production of electricity needs at least a factor of two in cost reduction. Depending on how this translates into commerce, this could be an important step forward. This technology will also apply to the Research Triangle Solar Fuels Institute (RTSFI) research in producing transport fuel from sunlight.
November 18, 2010: A recent report from the American Physical Society is pessimistic regarding the ability of the grid to handle power from renewable sources. The principal premise is the variability of the sources and the inability of the grid to handle the ups and downs. They caution that renewable portfolio standards will not be effective without major modifications to the grid. They discuss the options, including improved transmission means and storage. There is a fair bit of detail on both. We see storage as a key. A phased introduction of the Smart Grid is also an important measure.
November 16, 2010: According to a review in Science, a recent book by Roger Pielke is worth reading. It is entitled The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming. Our reason to cite it here is not to recommend it per se, but the subject relates to our upcoming Breakfast Forum. The provocative title notwithstanding, most of the book addresses what the author refers to as the “iron law”. To quote him, “When policies focused on economic growth confront policies focused on emissions reduction, it is economic growth that will win out every time”. Today, with a shift to the right in Congress, this likely is more prevalent than even before. Thus, climate change impacts will largely need to be an outcome of innovation targeting economics and growth. An example is improving the efficiency of fossil fuel consuming vehicles. This provides the triple play benefit of reduced cost to the consumer, decreased reliance on foreign oil and fewer emissions per mile driven. The book advocates this sort of thing as well, but is a bit short on solutions, according to the review. Incidentally, electric vehicles fall squarely into the aforementioned example. They are about 40% more efficient than internal combustion engines in a well (or mine)-to-wheel analysis. The reduced cost to the consumer is a work in progress on capital cost but is immediate on operating cost.
November 15, 2010: A recent issue of Science comments on the most current predictions regarding energy by the International Energy Association (IEA). Embedded in the story is the link to the full report by the IEA. The findings are generally consistent with some of the positions taken in the Directors Blog over the last year or so. Most importantly, it supports the notion of an upcoming plateau in oil production. This will inevitably lead to sustained price increases driven by the supply/demand imbalance. A fundamental change in transportation is needed to reduce dependence on oil. We have discussed this in our Breakfast Forum as also in our blogs. The IEA forecasts electric based vehicles to number 75% in 3035, if the carbon mitigation plan is followed. In general, the annual report from this respected body is much anticipated and worth a read.
October 14, 2010: The announcement of Google’s intent to invest in an offshore power line is welcome news. Offshore wind is generally stronger and more constant than that on land. However, it too has been the victim of pushback from coastal residents fearing “visual pollution”. Wind farms out of sight from land are hampered by the lack of infrastructure to deliver the electricity. Projects such as these overcome that obstacle. A Sierra Club spokesman, while positive regarding the news, hoped that the line would not be used to distribute “electricity from dirty coal”. This comment falls in the class of no good deed going unpunished. Sure, the line could get used to alleviate the overcrowded eastern grid before the wind farms come on line. It will improve reliability and reduce cost to the consumer. That is a good thing. In of itself this will do nothing to encourage a higher mix of coal based generation.
October 2, 2010: This announcement is welcome, albeit late. The $500 million pot for research in estimating the impact of spills and ameliorating them is a good move. The regional politics that delayed the awards is not. Arguably the region is rich in research capability and the limitation of awards to entities from that area is not hugely limiting. But the impact is national and needs the best effort no matter from whence. One can only hope that the original intent to have peer reviewed science will not also be compromised.
September 30, 2010: Bacteria have always carried a negative connotation. Salmonella and e-coli raise the specter of disease. Antibiotic resistance has been in the news for years. Then along came a report we blogged on earlier on cold loving oil eating bacteria that might well save the Gulf of Mexico. Now there is a story in the Economist with the finding that certain forms of carbon sequestering bacteria may be far more prevalent in the oceans than previously realized. The bacterial action results in compounds that are stable and no living creature can cause the release of the carbon dioxide.
Now we need to figure out whether they can be multiplied without collateral damage. If so, this could be a massive new weapon against climate change.
September 29, 2010: We are grateful to our regular site visitor Colleen Mcguire for drawing our attention to this scientific advance right here in our backyard. The report in ScienceDaily reviews a paper by NC State’s Dr. Orlin Velev and co-authors in the Journal of Materials Chemistry. Described is an interesting “Artificial Leaf” which produces electricity. In nature, leaves use photon energy to break down water to hydrogen and then combine it with carbon dioxide in the air to make plant sugars. In this work, Dr. Velev and co-workers mimic this action but with the purpose of generating electricity. Not surprisingly, the efficiencies are very low, but the authors are careful not to offer too much promise.
Another approach, that of using photons to split water and then reacting the hydrogen with waste carbon dioxide to form hydrocarbons, is the focus of the Solar Fuels Institute here in RTP.
August 26, 2010: This story in the Wall Street Journal gives a bit more detail on the decisions taking place on that fateful day in April. The description of the type of testing, and the accompanying illustration, are substantially accurate. A key inference is that the annular blow out preventer was functioning. Without that, the pressure test could not have been conducted.
This flies in the face of the widely publicized early testimony that a rig operator had reported chunks of rubber days before and been ignored. He surmised that the annular preventer had been damaged (the main sealing elements are elastomeric), but this is ruled out on the basis of this report.
Although dramatic effect is in abundance, this is a good read and adds to the body of knowledge on the matter.
July 8, 2010: A recent opinion Nature piece, “How to Defend Against Future Oil Spills,” details various oil spills that occurred offshore over the last four decades. Of interest is the last major blow out prior to the current BP oil spill, happened 30 years ago at Ixtoc 1 in Mexico.
In the intervening period, there have been 10 tanker accidents and the worst three spilled nearly half as much as the Ixtoc blow out. The significance of this statistic suggests that if offshore development in the Gulf of Mexico were to be curtailed, more tanker traffic would result. This reiterates the belief that our addiction to oil is likely to continue unchecked.
Also interesting is the author’s observation that the frequency of pipeline ruptures is on a progressive rise. These findings places the BP oil spill in some perspective.
June 30, 2010: In their report entitled Abundant Shale Gas Resources: Some Implications for Energy Policy Brown et al discuss the implications of the recent realization that the US will be self sufficient in natural gas. The critical driver for this has been exploitation of shale gas resources. The report discusses the impact of this abundance on the environment and economy. They run five different scenarios and generally draw attention to the need for appropriate policy.
Natural gas is the single fossil fuel with the broadest impact on industry, ranging from fertilizers to fabrics to polypropylene. In fact, during the days of sustained high gas prices a few years ago, some manufacturing was driven offshore due to the high raw material price. Abundance will generally connote with lower prices and is fundamentally good for industrial health. The report concludes that gas substitution of coal is viable as a transitional strategy for carbon mitigation only if low –carbon policies are in place.
June 21, 2010: The article in Nature Nanotechnology by Seung Woo Lee et al addresses an important shortcoming of Lithium Ion batteries for high power applications such as electric cars and power tools. Currently the cathode is the rate limiting element for fast charge or discharge. The Lithium ion mobility in and out of the cathode is not high. Consequently, charging rates are relatively slow (an all-electric such as a Nissan Leaf will take several hours to charge even with a 240 volt system).
One remedy is to use batteries in combination with supercapacitors aka ultracapacitors. These last are electrochemical devices which have the high rate charge/discharge of capacitors and yet with modest capacity. The batteries are used for range and the capacitors for acceleration. The initial tranche of electric cars will not have this ability, but expect it in the future.
The cited paper reports on the use of carbon nanotubes to increase capacity but also to vastly improve charge/discharge times. In some ways this is a cathode that combines the attributes of the regular cathode and a capacitor. [Using carbon nanotubes in lithium batteries: New method produced up to ten fold increase in power]
June 21, 2010: Biofuels are no longer the darlings of the renewable energy world. In particular, ethanol derived from any food crop other than sugar cane has been called into question. But fuel from non-food crops, especially if drought tolerant, has currency. Note, though, that drought tolerant crops do love water, and do better with more. So water conservation may not necessarily result. This article in Science reviews many of the issues and is a good read. It is also an eye-opener with regard to water usage by different sources of fuel. Note also the differences between open and closed loop systems. [Another Biofuels Drawback: The Demand for Irrigation]
June 10, 2010: The greatest gains for society in the realm of sustainable energy are going to come from simply using less. Significant technical advances have been made to accomplish this, and there are more to come. The Smart Grid will be an important avenue. A less studied avenue is that of persuading the public to use these technologies to advantage. Behavioral economics approaches are needed to inform on enabling policy. These methods may also be used to nudge people to do the right thing. This article by Mullainathan and Alcott discusses the matter. They are thought leaders in this arena. [Behavior and Energy Policy]
June 10, 2010: If you liked the Alcott and Mullainathan review in Science, then you may be persuaded to read Libertarian Paternalism by Richard Thaler out of the Booth School at University of Chicago. I consider him to be one of the founders of Behavioral Economics. He also appears to have had a profound influence on Alcott and Mullainathan. This paper has an oxymoronic title, is published in the premier journal in economics, but is an easy read. It is chronologically old, but completely relevant today. His book Nudge is also a good read, but all the precepts are right here in these few pages. [Libertarian Paternalism]
June 3, 2010: In the quest for sustainable energy substitutes most of the attention has been to carbon mitigation. The paper by Mulder et al underlines the importance of the efficiency of water usage. They have reviewed the literature and computed the efficiency of water usage per unit of energy produced. They have done so for every major source of alternative energy with the glaring exclusion of hydroelectric power. The most interesting findings center on the low efficiency of water usage by biomass derived fuels when compared against fossil fuel. The factor of two to three difference between diesel and bio-diesel from soy beans is striking. [Efficiency of Water Usage in Energy Production]
December 8, 2008 In a recent story, the Washington Post reported on the failed policy with regard to Flex Fuel vehicles and the associated use of E85 gasoline blend. The underlying science that vitiates the policy is that ethanol has about 33% fewer calories per gallon than does gasoline. This results in a mileage penalty of about 28% with the use of E85. This then was the basis of the “fairy tale” which is linked here for your amusement and modest edification.