Archive for August, 2006


Carbon return desk II

August 27, 2006

So, as I posted a couple of days ago, the standard – and surprisingly well developed – technique for carbon sequestration is to stick it way under the ground, in deep aquifers.

But there’s another contender out there accruing its fan base: sticking it onto the ground.

More specifically, there are marvelously productive soils out there, typified by the terra preta of the Amazon, which are a couple of feet deep and which turn out turnips and whatnot twice the size of those that come up in ordinary soil. It turns out this class of rich black earths is anthropogenic. Armed with the right know-how, any farmer or gardener can have it. And fight global warming withal.

The chief evangelist for terra preta was the late peripatetic Dutchman Wim Sombroek. As Nature reported on August 10:

Sombroek was born in the Netherlands in 1934 and lived through the Dutch famine of 1944 — the Hongerwinter. His family kept body and soul together with the help of a small plot of land made rich and dark by generations of laborious fertilization. Sombroek’s father improved the land in part by strewing it with the ash and cinders from their home. When, in the 50s, Sombroek came across terra preta in the Amazon, it reminded him of that life-giving ‘plaggen’ soil, and he more or less fell in love. His 1966 book Amazon Soils began the scientific study of terra preta.Since then trial after trial with crop after crop has shown how remarkably fertile the terra preta is. Bruno Glaser, of the University of Bayreuth, Germany, a sometime collaborator of Sombroek’s, estimates that productivity of crops in terra preta is twice that of crops grown in nearby soils

Sure enough, the Brazilian soils had been built up by Brazilian locals over centuries, with bone and manure and – chiefly – charcoal, which is the source of the black color. For a sense of the soil’s productivity, compare the photo of preta corn on the left, normal soil corn on the right, and like they say in the Sure commercial, your left side will convince your right side.The charcoal tends to absorb water and assorted nutrients that would otherwise sink into the aquifer. That in turn encourages massive growth of microorganisms, who not only further enrich the soil, but bind an astonishing quantity of carbon in subsoil biomass. Three feet of terra preta, it is claimed, will support a biomass equal to the rain forest above the same ground.

Expertise is still slim (What’s the optimal mix of char with other ingedients, and how does it change with climate? How compatible is formation of these soils with other green practices like no-till farming?), but it’s growing. In addition to the Bayreuth project, Danny Day runs a working production facility in Athens, Georgia, which turns farm waste like peanut shells half into biofuels and half into char. Free hydrogen is another byproduct. At Iowa State University Ames, Robert Brown is doing something similar with corn rather than peanuts. In New South Wales, Biomass Energy Services and Technology has constructed a series of char-producing engines at increasing scales.

The bottom line? Brown estimates that the U.S. corn crop alone could be used to sequester a quarter of a billion tonnes of carbon a year.


That’s funny, you look planetish

August 26, 2006

So Pluto’s planeteering days are over. As a card-carrying geezer, I guess I’m supposed to get all nostalgic and upset. But it was past time the astronomical community settled this thing, one way or another. And there was simply no intellectually honest way to maintain the old canonical nine.

I’ve seen quite a few horrified cries of “But think about the children!” The children were well served by this decision; better served than they would have been by the open-ended planet list of the committee’s Roundness Recommendation. Our solar system now has exactly eight planets, and always will.

Not that extrasolar planetary systems won’t trip us up down the road. Whether under the Committee’s scheme, or the one that got voted in, planets do not constitute a natural kind. Domination of an orbital region is hardly a bright line in the universe of possible arrangements of heavenly bodies. When we run into a former planet busted up into half a dozen pieces, or an asteroid-like belt with one major body and a couple of dozen lesser ones that failed to amalgamate, the sky solons will have to convene and scratch their heads all over again. But surely this definition will be serviceable for a generation or two. And that’s an eternity in science.

The one thing that “the children” now need is a standard classroom census of the solar system which isn’t planet-centric. The magic number is no longer nine, but it shouldn’t be eight either. It’s twelve: the eight planets, plus Sol, the asteroids, the Kuiper belt, and the Oort cloud.

May victimes evade Muhammad Ali’s jaw slamming uppercut? No: Knock Out!


The carbon return desk

August 21, 2006

Last week’s Nature had a fascinating pair of news features on carbon sequestration. There is, of course, no silver bullet for beating global warming. It’s going to take, you should pardon the expression, an energetic attack across several simultaneous fronts. But I had been imagining that sequestering CO2 was no more than a bit of blue-skying. Turns out all of the technology is well established, and it may solve a goodly fraction of the puzzle.

The zine’s first piece, The hundred billion tonne challenge, concerns the standard plan: capture the carbon dioxide from coal as it burns, and then inject it into deep aquifers, where it will be stabilized under pressure in dissolved form. Three ongoing industrial scale projects already exist, in Canada, Algeria, and Norway. The Norwegian plant is already economically viable, because of Norway’s hefty carbon tax, set at $50 a tonne as compared to the EU’s timid $20. A scaled-up project is under construction in Ketzin, Germany, which will stuff 60,000 tonnes of CO2 away over two years.

It had better scale up a lot further. In order to keep from shooting past the doubling mark for carbon dioxide concentrations, we’ve got 175 gigatonnes of Chevron’s favorite gas to make vanish over the next 50 years. The potential storage capacity of deep aquifers, though, is from 1,000 to 10,000 gigatonnes.

For CCS (Carbon Capture and Sequestration) to become a significant chunk of the solution worldwide will take around $80 billion in capital investment. When a coal plant is built from scratch to accommodate the integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC), you have to pay out 20% more up front. If it has to be retrofitted, the cost gets steeper. Then there are operating costs, the IGCC burns up some energy itself, and you still only recover half the carbon dioxide the coal gives off. The bottom line: IGCC will add about 3 cents per kilowatt hour to the production costs of a coal plant, a bit under double. Enough to make you swallow hard, but when compared to the costs of global warming, not particularly alarming. As a side benefit, the technique also scours such pollutants as sulfur from the plant’s stacks.

It’s a two-step process.

In IGCC plants, the fuel — coal, fuel oil or biomass — is introduced into a hot gasifier along with oxygen and steam. This produces a fuel gas consisting mainly of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The carbon monoxide then goes through a second ‘shift’ reaction with steam, making carbon dioxide and more hydrogen. The carbon dioxide can be relatively easily separated at this point.

The magazine’s second article dangles its limbs a little bit out into blue sky territory, but there’s some good science behind it. More next time…


A Tale of Two Countries

August 14, 2006

A week ago today, a little blurb on the inside pages of the Boston Globe caught my eye. The headline was “Surveillance Bill OK’d”, and I started scanning it with that now familiar Dorothy Parker feeling. (That grand dame got bored answering her phone with “Hello,” and switched for a while to “What fresh hell is this?”)

The further I read, the better I felt. Until I went back and read it a little more slowly, including the dateline. And as a result, for your delectation, this little quiz, which I’ll call A Tale of Two Countries.

Country A:
According to a new law

  • The government is allowed to “to use telephone wiretaps, e-mail scans and other surveillance techniques in the name of public security.”
  • The government must obtain permission from a judge first.
  • Citizens are guaranteed a right to sue for compensation for wrongful surveillance
  • Upon passage of the law, the entire opposition party walked out of the legislative chamber en masse in protest.

Country B:

  • The government confirmed that it has been using telephone wiretaps, and unspecified additional surveillance techniques, on thousands of citizens in the name of public security.
  • It asserted the right to do this in violation of a law making it a felony to do so without obtaining permission from a judge first.
  • When citizens brought suit for wrongful surveillance, the government insisted the suits be dismissed without a hearing, under a “state secrets” privilege.
  • When some judges permitted some suits to go forward, the government introduced a law to consolidate all such suits under a court which had a firm track record of kowtowing to all government claims of “state secrets” privilege.
  • In the opposition party, no other legislators were willing to back a call to censure the government’s behavior.

One country is the United States of America, bastion of liberty. The other country is the evil, repressive regime of Communist China (specifically, the province of Hong Kong). Now, the trick question: which is which? Answer in the Chicago Tribune


How the Brits pinched the plotters

August 11, 2006

Reputable news agencies have been agreed that the unraveling of the plane-bombing network in the UK was the fruit of good old fashioned police work. Today, I went scouring a dozen major news outlets in Britain and the U.S., with one question in mind: where did it start? What was the first loose thread on which MI5 was able to begin tugging?

Perhaps it was all there in previous days’ reports. Today, many sources were trumpeting the great value of NSA wiretaps in catching the communique from Pakistan bosses to the bombers, who, freaked by the arrest of two British conspirators on Pakistani soil, to begin operations right away. There’s legitimate drama in that story, which also explains the timing of the sweep-up. And of course most of the accounts did a roundup and summary of the previous week’s news.

But only CNN answered my question. The whole investigation began with a tipoff to the British cops by a concerned Muslim citizen:

The original information about the plan came from the Muslim community in Britain, according to a British intelligence official.”The plotters intended this to be a second September 11th,” said U.S. Homeland Security adviser Frances Townsend. “It’s a frightening example of multiple, simultaneous attacks for explosions of planes that would have caused the death of thousands.”

The tip was from a person who had been concerned about the activities of an acquaintance after the July 7, 2005, terror attacks in London, the official said.

Let this be noted, then. At no point did the police operation depend on warrantless wiretaps.

  • The initial tip came from a concerned citizen. In the U.S., this would have given ample probable cause for the government to go to the FISA court and obtain a warrant. The court has rejected only two requests out of more than 5,000 since its inception.
  • The wiretap which caught the “do it now” message was also legal under the standard FISA law. As a Pakistan to UK call, it did not involve a “United States person” and the sternest critic of Bush’s illegal wiretapping programs would agree the FISA framework already allows such calls to be monitored without warrants. But even if the same scenario had played out in America rather than in the UK, cops already knew about the callers and the called through normal police work, and there would have been no difficulty whatsoever in obtaining a FISA warrant.

The acolytes of Dubya’s New World Ordure will be leaning hard in coming weeks on the notion that “NSA wiretaps” were crucial to breaking this case. They will fail to mention that it was not illegal wiretappers, but alert citizens, who provided the real break, and they will fail to mention that every wiretap involved was one for which the normal warrant procedure would have worked just as efficiently.


Meta-abuse of government secrecy

August 6, 2006

So many atrocities to cover, so little time. Should I talk about the fact that the House has slipped into the Defense appropriations bill a little clause that would, at the President’s discretion, stomp on governors’ control of the National Guard, and federalize it? Or the bill to retroactively immunize the entire military and executive branch from penalties for war crimes, gutting the law the Republicans passed in 1996? Or Negroponte’s continuing refusal to provide Congress, as required by law when they request it, a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq? Or the GOP’s insistence that the minimum wage can’t be raised, unless a 750 billion tax break for millionaires only is passed along with it? (Hint – that’s 750 billion that will have to be taken out of the pockets of the middle class and the working poor. Cuts to Medicaid and tuition assistance and unemployment benefits, anyone?) Or half a dozen other Bush-generated horrors from just the past week?

I’ll settle for this catch from The Memory Hole.

The Justice Department tipped its hand in its ongoing legal war with the ACLU over the Patriot Act. Because the matter is so sensitive, the Justice Dept is allowed to black out those passages in the ACLU’s court filings that it feels should not be publicly released.Ostensibly, they would use their powers of censorship only to remove material that truly could jeopardize US operations. But in reality, what did they do? They blacked out a quotation from a Supreme Court decision:

“The danger to political dissent is acute where the Government attempts to act under so vague a concept as the power to protect ‘domestic security.’ Given the difficulty of defining the domestic security interest, the danger of abuse in acting to protect that interest becomes apparent.”

The mind reels at such a blatant abuse of power (and at the sheer chutzpah of using national security as an excuse to censor a quotation about using national security as an excuse to stifle dissent).

This is also the week that even Charmin’ Chairman Roberts of the Senate Intelligence Committee, whose whole life the last four years has been dedicated to helping the Bush administration cover up its crimes and its incompetence, finally got steamed about the Prez’s fetish for classifying everything that moves, as a warmup exercise for classifying everything that holds still.

A section of that Phase II of the Intel Committee’s report on Iraq intelligence, delayed now for a mere three years – the phase that was to look at whether the White House misused or mischaracterized the intelligence it received – was finally due to be released. It was a section based entirely on material in the public record; but its conclusions (roughly, that Chalabi played the neocons for patsies with his own disinformation campaign) was embarrassing. So it came back black magic markered to death, based on chunks of public information having been newly classified.

It just so happens that classifying information just because it’s politically embarrassing is illegal. But obeying, or even noticing, the law has never been a forte of the Silencer In Chief.

Most frightening to his crowd of all pieces of information is that piece so well known to the framers of the Constitution: that executive power can be abused. We can now with some confidence expect the Federalist Papers to be declared state secrets sometime before the 2008 conventions begin. Get your own copy of them now. Perhaps when they raid your library, they’ll leave it intact if you’ve taken the precaution of rebinding it in, say, the cover of Ann Coulter’s next bestseller, Vermin.


Poetry archive 3

August 4, 2006

In which I continue to inflict my old poems on my readers.

After Jacques Roux

Wherever the shady clerics come
The pressure of an inky Thumb
Detains desire, while all things High
Are mapp’d out plain before the eye.
They deftly finger from the Blue
Promissory notes long due;
From faces formed of Robes and Hoods
They attach for their Master lands and goods.
Their Master’s name no man may guess.
They buckle their boots with a silver cross.