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[1THING] Blog: Archive for March, 2013

[ Scientists Say Oil Industry Likely Caused Largest Oklahoma Earthquake ]

The injection of wastewater from oil and gas production deep into the ground has been known to cause quakes within months, but the 2011 temblor in Oklahoma occurred after nearly two decades.


[ Giving Our Car a ‘Time-Out’ as Race Time Approaches ]

Hmmm… Aren’t we on Spring Break?

It is 6:00am Saturday, the first day of Spring Break for the Saint Thomas Academy Experimental Vehicle Team. As I walk out the door a blast of 10°F  (-12°C) air strikes me in the face. This won’t be a good day to test the vehicles! Ah, Spring in Minnesota.

After a quick stop for donuts (students need energy to be creative!) I arrive at school. Big surprise, I’m the only person there! The first couple of hours are spent answering emails, ordering last minute supplies, and going through the “to do” list for the day.  One of the things I have learned over time is that much more gets done if a “plan o’ the day” is in place. After I’ve already consumed three cups of coffee, the first students stumble into my room with hairstyles that could only be done by Mr. Pillow.  It was time to get to work!

When we last left our story, we were convinced that the prototype car would go smoothly and the urban concept car would be fraught with peril. How wrong we were! As the team was going through the rules, double-checking we comply, the 6-meter turning radius reared its ugly head. “No problem,” one student says.  Famous last words….

A quick circle is set up in the cafeteria (the maintenance crew at our school has always been very supportive!) and the small, carbon prototype sets off.  After a few modifications the car made the circle. “We should check it with the body on,” our student director suggests. Failure! The car isn’t even close to making the 12-meter circle. This is a huge problem that will ultimately lead to some drastic measures.

While our prototype car is sitting in “time-out,” our urban concept vehicle is slowly getting finished. Lights and turn signals are in, suitcase door is cut and installed, and the frame is back up on wheels. While all of the mechanical systems of the car are installed for the final time our electric team is hustling to finish a very complicated monitor/management system. With Pandaboards (on-board computers) and touch screens in each car, the driver and pit crew will (or hopes to!) have up-to-the second data during each efficiency attempt. It looks very complicated, but they assure me that it will work. To say I’m a little skeptical is an understatement! Let’s hope it isn’t our Achilles Heel on our “Road to Houston.”


[ Video: Drama on ‘The Road to Houston’ ]

Shell* Eco-marathon Americas, a fuel-efficiency race where students design and build futuristic vehicles that are then driven on the streets of downtown Houston, Texas, kicks off on April 4. Shell followed three student teams across the Americas, capturing their trials and tribulations as they prepared for the race. In the first episode, Canada’s Alérion Supermileage team is struggling in their determination to regain victory; the US team Let’s Do It Again must step up the pace; and tensions simmer within the e³- USFC team in Brazil. Watch below:

* Shell is sponsor of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.


[ Congress’s Affair With Ethanol: Love Gone Wrong? ]

The ethanol mandate in gasoline is starting to sting.

Trouble Brewing

In a news article published in Science magazine last week, journalist Robert Service writes: “This year is shaping up to be decisive for ‘cellulosic’ ethanol made from corn stalks and other agricultural waste, as oil companies and the ethanol industry clash over government mandates for the automotive fuel.”

What’s going on? Let’s start with a brief primer on the use of ethanol in America’s automobile.

As a libation, ethanol’s been around for a long, long time. As a fuel, it dates back to 1826 when it was first used in an internal combustion engine. Ethanol was also the fuel that ran the 1908 version of the Ford Model T. But “the decreasing cost of oil (and US prohibition)” among other factors turned Ford’s “fuel of the future” into a fuel of the past and, with the exception of World War II [pdf], there it remained for much of the mid-20th century where the fuel of choice on America’s roadways was ethanol-free gasoline.

Congress’s Love Affair With Ethanol

Starting in the late 1970s, however, ethanol began to creep its way back into our fuel tanks, at first in response to oil shortages [pdf] and the Clean Air Act’s mandated phase-out of leaded gasoline (ethanol supplanted lead as an additive to enhance octane). Demand for ethanol increased as Congress began actively encouraging and then mandating its use in cars. For example, a 1978 tax break for ethanol-blended gasoline was followed by the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, whose requirements included the presence of an oxygenated compound such as ethanol in gasoline to produce cleaner automobile emissions and thus cleaner air.

More recently, Congress upped the ethanol ante with two renewable fuel standards: the 2005 Energy Policy Act “required 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel to be blended into gasoline by 2012” and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 greatly expanded the program by:

  • increasing the volume of renewable fuels from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons by 2022,
  • adding more renewable fuel categories each with separate volume requirements (including cellulosic ethanol targets of 100 million gallons in 2010 increasing to 16 billion gallons in 2022), and
  • applying life cycle greenhouse gas performance threshold standards to ensure that each category of renewable fuel emits less greenhouse gas emissions than the petroleum fuel it replaces.

Why the Love?

Knowing what’s behind Congress’s passion for ethanol as a fuel is not quite as inscrutable as knowing what sparks romantic love, so let’s look at some possibilities. First and perhaps foremost, ethanol is a homegrown energy source and one that was aided by a healthy tariff on imported ethanol that excluded Brazilian ethanol from competing in the U.S. market. It’s reasonable to assume Congress was considering national security. But that’s not all.

The desired air-quality improvements from the 1990 CAA were to be achieved, in part, by adding ethanol or a similarly oxygenated compound to the hydrocarbon chains of fossil fuels thus adding oxygen and encouraging a more complete and cleaner burn. But I’d take that with a bit salt. The evidence (see here and here) that that ethanol mandate actually led to significantly improved air quality is pretty thin.

That brings us to the renewable fuel standards. As summarized in a report [pdf] by the Congressional Research Service, the 2005 and 2007 mandates were aimed at alleviating our “increasing dependence on foreign sources of crude oil, concerns over global climate change, and the desire to promote domestic rural economies.” But like the air-quality mandate, there’s room for some skepticism here. For example, the climate benefits of ethanol have been challenged by a number of investigators (see here, here and here).

Which brings us to the other reason listed above: desire to promote domestic rural economies. Here I think we’ve found pay dirt — but not for any old rural economy, just the ones that grow corn.

Virtually all of today’s U.S.-produced ethanol comes from corn. So ethanol mandates raise the demand for corn — making it a commodity wanted not only for food but also for fuel. And so the result? Corn prices rise, and American corn growers benefit. Voting for the mandate means making the very powerful National Corn Growers Association happy. Voting against it, let alone trying to remove it, means risking the wrath of the lobby.

And then there’s Iowa. Ever wonder why in recent memory there’s near-unanimous support for ethanol mandates among presidential candidates? Could it have anything to do with the all-important caucuses in Iowa, a state also known as the Corn State where 90 percent of its land is agricultural?

With all those reasons going for it, you’d think the 2007 ethanol mandate would be sitting pretty. In fact, as noted by Service in that Science article, the mandate is in serious trouble.

Problem #1: Plenty of Ethanol, Not Enough Gasoline

Times change. In 2007 a trend was clear — gasoline consumption was on the rise. For an ethanol mandate to have teeth over time, the amount of ethanol produced, Congress reasoned, would also need to increase over time. And so federal mandates [pdf] required that the total volume of renewable fuel would increase (from 9 billion gallons to 36 billion gallons) with corn ethanol maxing out at 15 billion gallons per year.

The problem is that gasoline consumption did not increase as anticipated (see graphic below). First came the economic downturn of 2008 and then a hankering for more fuel-efficient cars. As a result, since peaking in late 2007, U.S. gasoline consumption has slowly declined (see graphic).

Used with permission by McClellan Financial Publications

Used with permission by McClellan Financial Publications


That’s generally good news. But for the ethanol mandate … not so much. The vast majority of U.S. cars are designed to use a fuel mix that contains no more than 10 percent ethanol, and most gas stations are set up for gasoline with a maximum ethanol content of 10 percent. So consider what happens if total gasoline consumption goes down while the total amount of ethanol required to be mixed with the gasoline increases? Eventually you hit what is known as the “ethanol blend wall” where any addition of ethanol to the mix will result in a fuel that is more than 10 percent ethanol. (See here and here [pdf].)

So how close is that ethanol blend wall? For all intents and purposes we’ve hit it. In 2012, the Energy Information Administration reports [pdf], the average ethanol content in U.S. gasoline was 9.7 percent. (See graphic).

biofuels chart

(From EIA’s Biofuels Issues and Trends [pdf], October 2012)


Suffice it to say, something’s gotta give. Either American cars need a mandated retrofit that would allow for a higher percentage of ethanol (just how expensive such a retrofit would be is up for debate — see here and here) or the 2007 mandate needs to be relaxed.

Problem #2: Not Enough of the Good Stuff (Cellulosic Ethanol)

Corn ethanol, like most alcoholic beverages, is produced from a plant’s starches and sugars. (Ethanol is “denatured “ to make it undrinkable.) But it’s corn ethanol’s cousin cellulosic ethanol – which is derived from a plant’s inedible cellulose (a major rigid component of plants) — that’s generally viewed as the ethanol of the future. Why? Plants have far more cellulose than starches and sugars. And so there’s much more stuff available to produce cellulosic ethanol than corn ethanol. At least in theory we can produce a lot more cellulosic ethanol than corn ethanol.

That’s in theory. In practice it hasn’t yet worked out that way. Turning cellulose into ethanol is a difficult task, made even more difficult with commercial viability as a goal. Giving a legislative leg-up is one way to overcome the hurdles of developing a commercial enterprise — and that’s essentially what the federally mandated increases in cellulosic ethanol in gasoline blends were intended in part to do but they have not worked.

The industry has simply not been able to make enough cellulosic ethanol to meet the mandates. In 2012, for example, instead of the 8.65 million gallons required by the Environmental Protection Agency, just 20,000 gallons of cellulosic ethanol were produced. Normally refiners would be required to purchase credits to make up the difference, but the American Petroleum Industry took EPA to court — and won (see decision [pdf]). EPA later eliminated the 2012 requirements ($ub req’ed). Meanwhile, the mandated totals for 2013 are expected to be challenged in court, even though 2013 is the year cellulosic fuel is expected by the biofuel industry to make good.

The Ethanol Mandate on the Ropes

So what’s in store? In his article in Science Service predicts a knock-down, drag-out fight “pitting the world’s largest oil and car companies against giant agricultural firms and Midwest farmers.” And the oil industry is primed for the kill with Charles Drevna, president of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, now calling for the repeal of the renewable fuel standards. Meanwhile several bills floating through Congress aim to slash the cellulosic ethanol mandate.

We’ll have to wait to see, but it could be that the Congressional romance with ethanol will turn out to be a perfect love gone wrong.


[ Less Than Two Weeks to Race Time… ]

With less than two weeks left until the competition, the Illini EcoConcept team is busy finishing the vehicle over spring break. This is only the second year for the team. In our first year we brought a hydrogen fuel cell powered “urban concept” vehicle and took first place. This year we would like to improve our efficiency further and defend our title. At the same time, we’re taking our vehicle to the next level. While the 2013 car has been designed to be exceedingly efficient, it has also been designed to seat two people and reach at least 30 mph.


[ Lighter and Sleeker for This Year’s Race ]

Purdue Solar Racing (PSR) has shown tremendous strides over our 22-year history. With a car that failed to qualify at Sunrayce as our starting point, we could only go up. PSR was founded on the principle of building and racing solar cars as well as educating the public on alternative forms of energy.  Through improvements and learning, our team eventually produced Pulsar for the 2010 Shell Eco-marathon.

Pulsar drove away with first place in the solar division, the Technical Innovation Award for patent-pending carbon fiber layup process and telemetry systems, and the Communication Award for reaching out to the community through events and teaching about solar racing as well as renewable energy.

Purdue Solar Racing’s continued growth and learning was evident with our eighth car, Celeritas. PSR focused on an Urban Concept Vehicle, a valuable and forward-thinking perspective in our current environment, winning the concept category with 2,175 miles per gallon. In 2012, PSR again won the Urban Concept Vehicle category at the Shell Eco-Marathon with an improved mpg of 2,250.

Over the years, PSR has consistently won awards for teamwork and communication, as with the Sportsmanship Award in 1999 (for helping out Ohio State with technical problems) and the ‘0-66’ Award in 2003 (for showing the most improvement during a race). PSR is entering our ninth car, Navitas, in this year’s Eco-marathon. With a sleeker design, Navitas is designed to travel more efficiently with an increased mpg and a decrease in weight, while maintaining the eligibility to be scientifically street legalized.  (See related post: “Purdue: Nearly Street Legal, Powered by Sun“)

Navitas provided us with design challenges that tested the strength of our team. Due in part to the limitation of solar cells set by Eco-marathon rules, PSR has worked hard to overcome the challenges and provide technical solutions that ensure positive power is obtained.  Navitas is expected to weigh more than 50 percent less than Celeritas, as well as using four and a half times fewer solar cells.  PSR put in the dedicated hours we are known for and look forward to completing the finishing touches before Navitas is ready for the streets and unveiling on March 22.


[ Two Sibling Cars: One Easy, One Mischievious ]

Will spilled resin wash out of my uniform pants?

Oh no! Not that question again! I warn students that they should bring a change of clothes to the shop, and it should be something they will never wear in public again. How many times will youthful enthusiasm override common sense? Someone’s mom is not going to be happy when her son gets home from school! Welcome to a typical day at EVT.

The Saint Thomas Academy Experimental Vehicle Team has been building one-person alternative energy vehicles for 15 years. Each project has been as unique as the contest they were designed for, ranging from cross-country solar cars to enclosed electric motorcycles. Even though each project is very different, the group of budding engineers that build them have two common themes: a new vehicle will be tested in the school parking lot and someone will need new uniform pants.

This year our team of young Thomas Edisons are working feverishly to finish two new vehicles for Shell Eco-marathon. Choosing to build vehicles for both the urban concept AND prototype categories seemed like a good idea seven months ago! Now the growing list of details that need finishing makes me wonder what we where thinking. The tick…tick….tick of the clock in my physics room serves as a cruel mistress, always reminding the team that the cars leave for Houston in less than two weeks!

Choosing a favorite vehicle is like trying to choose a favorite student. They all make you smile, but some give you less trouble than others. Our prototype electric is composed of a carbon fiber body and a CNC cut carbon frame. The frame was designed to fit together like a three dimension jigsaw puzzle with tabs and slots. A high strength epoxy was used to bond things together. The three-wheeled prototype is fully suspended and is powered by a 1000-watt Heinzmann electric hub motor. The prototype has been the easy child of the family, while his brother, the urban concept vehicle, has proved to be a little bit more mischievous.

The urban concept vehicle is electric like its little brother, the prototype, and while they share a carbon fiber heritage, the application of the magic black cloth has been very different. The straight cuts on the prototype car’s frame look sterile when sitting next to the organic looking seat/frame of the urban concept car. Using the seat as a structural part of the frame was a stretch for us, but has proved to be a lightweight solution to a troublesome problem.

As our project moves forward into a well-timed Spring Break, we will keep you informed and provide a little more insight into what works (and perhaps more importantly what doesn’t!) as we rush to complete our vehicles and get them “On the Road to Houston.”


[ World Water Day With Xeros ]

Water Conservation: Technology GameChangers

BillwestwaterBill Westwater is the CEO of Xeros Ltd., a UK-based innovator of an ultra low-water bead cleaning system that reduces water and energy consumption. In this Q&A, Westwater offers his personal perspective about the increasing importance of water conservation.

Learn more about how Xeros’ water conserving product is a technology-based game changer.

What are the water conservation issues in your region?

The U.K. is a microcosm of the global world, in that we are placing more and more demands on the amount of water we have. Despite our reputation as a rainy country, we too face a future with less rainfall and less certainty about when it will fall.

Climate change and an ever-growing population are affecting the way we use our natural resources. That is why sustainable management is essential to protect our water supply and meet current and future demand.

Do water conservation efforts play a part in your personal life?

I’ve found that making just a few small, painless changes in my home has amounted to great water savings. I do my part: turning off the faucet when I brush my teeth, spending a bit less time in the shower, etc. I have also installed a water meter which has proved helpful in controlling my overall domestic use.

How do you connect with the theme of this year’s World Water Day: “Cooperation”?

This year’s theme of “cooperation” resonates with me personally, and with Xeros as a brand. Water conservation is a global issue that requires attention at all levels and across all sectors. Xeros’ water-saving system is entering the marketplace at a crucial time, during which the need has never been greater for stakeholders to work together to preserve our most precious natural resource.

Having lived and worked in many different countries throughout my life, I’ve experienced firsthand the issue of water scarcity and lack of available, safe drinking water. I’m very proud to lead a brand that offers a real solution to this growing problem and demonstrates what can be achieved to create a more sustainable, low-carbon society.

How did Xeros get its start?

The bead-cleaning system was developed and patented after 30 years of research by world-class polymer scientists at the University of Leeds. Xeros Ltd is a spin-off company from Leeds, and we’re focused on bringing to market a variety of polymer-based cleaning applications that dramatically reduce environmental impact and cost.

Why did you choose EarthShare as a partner to help share news about this technology?

There is no better partner than EarthShare to introduce Xeros’ patented cleaning technology to the U.S. market, and help us in our mission to educate people about the importance of water and energy conservation. We chose EarthShare for its excellent reputation and commitment to supporting a broad range of critical environmental issues, and we’re extremely pleased with our decision.


The Xeros technology uses a fraction of the water, energy and detergent compared to conventional washing methods, and provides significant environmental, cleaning and cost-saving benefits. With installations underway in three distinct segments of the commercial laundry industry, Xeros will formally launch its revolutionary system to the worldwide commercial laundry market at the June 2013 Clean Show in New Orleans, LA.

For more information about why EarthShare and Xeros are promoting water conservation and environmental stewardship together, visit our water issues resource section. If you would like to stay in touch with Xeros North America so you’ll be among the first to know when they debut their technology for home use, connect with them on Facebook and Twitter.



[ On World Water Day, a Look at Award-Winning Projects Saving Water and Energy ]

With the United Nations’ 20th annual World Water Day focusing on international cooperation in managing water, it’s a good time to highlight projects in the United States that are saving water — and energy.

World Water Day, which takes place every March 22, aims to increase awareness of the millions of people who don’t have access to clean drinking water. (See related quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Water and Energy“)

Earlier this year, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and the Alliance for Water Efficiency announced their first awards for five programs that a panel decided were exemplary, and seven more that were recognized with honorable mentions. The panel accepted nominations for projects in the U.S., Canada and Australia that were considered innovative and comprehensive.

Because water and energy are intrinsically linked, saving energy saves water, and vice versa. Below, learn about five of the programs that were acknowledged by ACEEE and AWE. (See related story: “Water Demand for Energy to Double by 2035“)

Darden Restaurants: Headquartered in Orlando, Florida, Darden is the world’s largest full-scale restaurant company. It owns several well-known brands, including Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse. It received an exemplary recognition in the commercial category for its 15 X 15 goal of reducing energy and water use by 15 percent in each of its restaurants by the year 2015, compared with a 2008 baseline. The company kicked off the program in 2009, and just two years later, it had already exceeded its water savings goal with a 17 percent savings, and reached an 8 percent savings in energy. The panel said Darden’s efforts show companies how they can save money by saving water and energy. Over the first two fiscal years of the project, Darden invested $3.3 million and achieved an average of $6 million in annual savings.

Massachusetts Water Resources Authority: Since it was established nearly 30 years ago, the MWRA has evolved from a water efficiency program into a long-term sustainability program, including conservation efforts, leak detection, renewable energy and on-site power generation. Recognized as exemplary by the panel, the project has saved 140 million gallons of water per day, saved its customers $350 million in avoided costs from water efficiency, and saved $24 million annually from energy management. It’s also improved the environments of local rivers and aquifers.

Southern California Edison: The electric utility’s Leak Detection Pilot Program helps water utilities find leaks and recommend repairs — saving both water and the energy that is embedded in its supply, conveyance, treatment and distribution systems. The panel gave the program an exemplary recognition because of the example it sets for water and energy utilities working together.

Florida Green Building Coalition: Started in 2001, the coalition has a green building checklist targeting water and energy in new residential construction that is specific to Florida’s climate. The panel gave the program an honorable mention for being “promising” because participation remains low. About 5,400 homes have been certified so far, according to the FGBC, and the program has resulted in an average of 15 percent savings in electricity consumption and a 20-percent drop in water use per household over buildings that are code-compliant.

City of Santa Rosa, California: The city’s Ozone Laundry Program was also called “promising” because of its successful use of an emerging technology that saves water and energy. Implemented in 2009, the project is recognized for its strong market penetration and large savings.

The other two programs named exemplary were the city of Boulder, Colorado for its energy performance contracting program and the United Technologies Corporation for its 2015 sustainability goals. Among the remaining honorable mentions: Promising Program awards went to the city of Austin, Texas; the town of Windsor, California; the Bonneville Power Administration, based in the Pacific Northwest; and the Denver Building Owners and Managers Association. Living Wise, a student conservation program, earned a Sustainable Program recognition.


[ Eco-marathon People’s Choice Contest: Official Rules ]

Official rules for the People’s Choice Eco-marathon contest