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The Ships May Sink Us All

A skeptic’s best friends are Snopes.com, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and a good ear for truthiness. And last week my truthiness-detector went haywire when I read this headline:

“One Giant Container Ship Can Emit Almost the Same Amount of Cancer and Asthma-Causing Chemicals as 50 Million Cars, Study Finds.”

The headline was from The Guardian, but it seemed more like the Daily Mail. The skeptic in me was duty-bound to investigate.

Source: http://www.thedigitel.com/top-stories/port-report-overlooks-seriousness-cargo-ship-emiss-1638-0922.

Source: http://www.thedigitel.com/top-stories/port-report-overlooks-seriousness-cargo-ship-emiss-1638-0922.

My investigation took the drastic form of reading the article. The outrageous claims kept on coming: “Confidential data from maritime industry insiders based on engine size and the quality of fuel typically used by ships and cars shows that just 15 of the world’s biggest ships may now emit as much pollution as all the world’s 760m cars.”

Really? According to these statistics, we could all keep driving our SUVs if we simply dry dock a few of the world’s 90,000 container ships. Environmental crisis averted.

But here’s where truthiness collides with the truth: The article states that all shipping accounts for only 18 to 30 percent of the global nitrous oxide emissions and 9 percent of all sulfur oxide emissions. These 90,000 container ships equal many thousand times more than all the cars on the world’s roads, yet account for a minimal amount of the world’s worst greenhouse gases. That must mean that cars account for even way fewer greenhouse gas emissions. My head spun with cognitive dissonance.

The truth is that the transportation sector accounts for just 14 percent of all greenhouse gases. Most nitrous oxide comes from agriculture. Must sulfur oxide comes from industry and power plants.

Source: Robert A. Rohde https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenhouse_gas#/media/File:Greenhouse_Gas_by_Sector.png

Source: Robert A. Rohde https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenhouse_gas#/media/File:Greenhouse_Gas_by_Sector.png

The Dirt on Bunker Oil

Truthiness aside, container ships do present a real problem. Their dirty secret is bunker oil. This is the most common type of fuel used on ocean-going vessels. The most common form of bunker oil is Bunker C oil, also known as residual fuel oil or heavy fuel oil. This is a highly viscous, low-quality, and dense oil that must be heated in order for it to become liquid enough to run through an engine. It’s so thick that it’s just one step away from being asphalt. It is distilled from crude oil, and it is the most polluting form of oil because of the contaminants that cannot be removed. It literally settles on the bottom of the barrel during the refining process.

So why do shipping companies use it? Because it’s really cheap. And container ships use a whole lot of it. Good statistics are hard to come by, but here are a few: Bunker oil is about $600 per metric ton, and a metric ton is about 358 gallons. That comes out to and an average of $1.67/gallon. The average container ship uses 108 metric tons per day. That’s $64,800 per day in fuel costs.

Source: http://dir.indiamart.com/impcat/bunker-fuel-oil.html.

Source: http://dir.indiamart.com/impcat/bunker-fuel-oil.html.

In a perfect world, bunker oil has no business being burned and spewed into the air, regardless of the cost. It has a sulfur content of 27,000 parts per million. Diesel fuel has a sulfur content of 15 parts per million. Less is better. Sulfur isn’t a greenhouse gas, but it is a major component of acid rain and it has lots of negative affects on plant and animal life. (Sulfur hexafluoride, on the other hand, is the worst greenhouse gas ever detected. It’s warming potential is 23,900 times that of carbon dioxide and it has an atmospheric lifetime of a couple thousand years. But it isn’t released when bunker oil is burned.) The rate of sulfur in the atmosphere is decreasing, thanks to the Clean Air Act, but no thanks to the shipping industry.

The Good News You Didn’t Hear About

The Guardian story about polluting container ships is from 2009. I can’t explain how or why I stumbled upon it only last week. But what it lacks in timeliness it more than makes up for in seriousness and hopefulness. It cheerfully reports that the U.S government is on the verge of establishing a 230-mile “clean air buffer zone” around its entire coast to protect people and the environment from bunker oil. The mandate will require ships at U.S. ports to burn cleaner diesel fuel instead of bunker oil. This is an easy, peasy switch that should only add an extra penny or so to the cost of your made-in-China stuff. The EPA estimates the new rule will prevent the premature deaths of anywhere between 13,000 and 33,000 U.S. and Canadian citizens each year. Yay!

Source: http://disneycruiselineblog.com/2012/07/north-american-emission-control-area-eca-and-the-effects-on-the-cruise-industry/.

Source: http://disneycruiselineblog.com/2012/07/north-american-emission-control-area-eca-and-the-effects-on-the-cruise-industry/.

The 200-nautical mile clean air buffer zone is officially called the North American Emission Control Area (ECA), and it went into effect in 2012. This zone drastically reduces sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulates emitted by container ships and was approved by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The IMO had previously sanctioned ECAs along the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. This momentous, drastic reduction in harmful greenhouse gases should have received a whole lot more attention in the press. (This article, however, notes the negative impact the ECA will have on the cruise industry. As if an extra couple bucks a day is going to prevent people from embarking on their Carnival Cruise. You’d think people would be happy that cruise ship smokestacks are no longer clogging their lungs the way that all-you-can-eat fried shrimp is clogging their veins.)

Source: http://thelasvegas.guru/the-cruise-guru/

Source: http://thelasvegas.guru/the-cruise-guru/

People need to see that international organizations and the EPA are making great strides in implementing policies to curb climate change and improve public health. Proving that change is possible paves the way for even more positive change. As a sentient species, we shouldn’t object to a slight increase in fuel oil prices if the trade off is better health and a cleaner environment.

The lesson here is that anyone can write a headline of truthiness, but discerning the truth requires digging into the devilish details.

Source: http://www.skepticalob.com/2013/11/the-truthiness-of-natural-parenting.html

Source: http://www.skepticalob.com/2013/11/the-truthiness-of-natural-parenting.html

Posted on: July 21, 2015, 11:45 am Category: Admin

The Secret History of Fresno’s Trash

Gas up the tank, drop the top, and set the GPS for the Fresno Sanitary Landfill. You’re going on a road trip to see where the modern sanitary landfill was born. You’re in for a real treat. Not only is this defunct, oblong hay-colored mound in the California desert a National Historic Landmark, but it’s also a Superfund site.

Source: https://landfill.wordpress.com/tag/sanitary-landfill/. Sign says “Regional Sports Complex, Fresno.” A bit of wishful thinking, perhaps.

Source: https://landfill.wordpress.com/tag/sanitary-landfill/. Sign says “Regional Sports Complex, Fresno.” A bit of wishful thinking, perhaps.

First, behold its 145 acres that stretch across the sunny California horizon. Then Google the Guide to Historic Architecture in Fresno, California to read up on its contribution to the modern world. Finally, become indignant at the fact that no one has yet placed a historical marker at the site.

This American monument is a mecca to hipster sanitation experts in the know. It is also the brainchild of public works impresario Jean Vincenz (1894-1989), who designed it in 1937. Like nerds everywhere, Vincenz was a master of his domain, his domain being the garbage dump. After studying the latest developments in dump technology in Seattle, New Orleans, and even Great Britain, he was determined to incorporate upgrades into the new Fresno site, then called the City Sewer Farm.

Source: Historic Places Database. http://www.hpdb.org/pictures/4638.

Source: Historic Places Database. http://www.hpdb.org/pictures/4638.

The first thing Vincenz did was a little PR hocus pocus. With a wave of a steam shovel, Ye Olde Town Dump became the sanitary landfill. (Never underestimate the power of semantics.) But his changes were more than smoke and mirrors. They were structural.

Here’s what he did:

  1. Planned the landfill as a series of compartmentalized trenches.
  2. Dug each trench and filled it before moving on to the next one.
  3. Each day, garbage was covered with dirt and compacted. This increased space and decreased pest activity.

Vincenz’s unique and lasting contribution to landfill design was to compact the garbage in trenches. No one had ever done this before, and yet it seems so simple. At the time, most of Fresno’s garbage was incinerated. Energy intense and not particularly sanitary.

Source: Historic Places Database , http://www.hpdb.org/pictures/4638.

Source: Historic Places Database , http://www.hpdb.org/pictures/4638.

Despite this new way of doing things, it took many years for the sanitary landfill to catch on in the rest of the country. But eventually Vincenz’s reputation grew and the Army Corps of Engineers came sniffing around and hired him away from sunny California. But he had started a trend: The oblong mound that looks just like the one in Anywhere, USA, today.

For 50 years, until it closed in 1987, the Fresno Sanitary Landfill welcomed the tired, the poor, the huddled refuse from local neighborhoods, devouring a total of 8 million cubic yards of trash. By that time it had become the nation’s oldest operating landfill, and ironically, a victim of its own success. The landfill had set in motion a chain of events that spelled its own demise.

Government officials, having seen that engineering and garbage go together like flotsam and jetsam, had tightened landfill regulations nationally as technology advanced. In particular, CERCLA—i.e., the Superfund program—responded to growing awareness of how trash can have a long-term detrimental impact on the environment.

Source: Historic Places Database, http://www.hpdb.org/pictures/4638.

Source: Historic Places Database, http://www.hpdb.org/pictures/4638.

Consequently, when the suits from the EPA came nosing around Fresno in the early 1980s, they smelled methane and vinyl chloride coming from decades of trapped and decaying garbage. Tests concluded that nasty stuff was leaking into water wells nearby. Onto the National Priorities List the landfill went.

New technology was added to old: The trenches were retrofitted with gas migration barriers that stopped methane from seeping into nearby homes. Volatile organic compounds were vacuumed out of the gas migration barriers. Wells were dug to monitor groundwater. Someone built a storm water management system and a landfill cap. Excess gas was flared off.

Source: http://yosemite.epa.gov/r9/sfund/r9sfdocw.nsf/3dc283e6c5d6056f88257426007417a2/e4cba3ef96f744ce8825728b007c34f7/$FILE/Fresno5yearreviewreport_final_Pg001-045.pdf.

Source: http://yosemite.epa.gov/r9/sfund/r9sfdocw.nsf/3dc283e6c5d6056f88257426007417a2/e4cba3ef96f744ce8825728b007c34f7/$FILE/Fresno5yearreviewreport_final_Pg001-045.pdf.

Meanwhile, the city delivered bottled water to the neighbors so they wouldn’t have to drink what came out of their tap. And so it goes—old garbage never dies, it simply fades to gases and pollution that must be monitored ad infinitum. The devil is in the details, and if you want to have a look, here they are.

One wonders how Vincenz took the news of his landfill’s obsolescence. His baby—from wunderkind to has-been within his own lifetime. He had long since moved on from Fresno, however. By 1960 he had worked his way up to becoming the president of the American Public Works Association, an organization that is now on the cutting edge of community sustainability and environmental stewardship.

The issue of garbage is more exciting than you might think. Looking for more literature? Try Martin Melosi’s book Garbage in the Cities: Refuse Reform and the Environment or Heather Rogers’ Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage. You might end up with a few more road trips on your itinerary.

Posted on: July 21, 2015, 11:37 am Category: Admin Tagged with: , , , ,

Prickly Pear: The New Petroleum?

Biofuels are a great idea, but making them from corn is a bad idea. Corn is a water-intensive crop, and dedicating hundred of thousands of acres to growing fuel instead of food isn’t the smartest use of resources for a planet that is low on both fresh water and food.


No Corn

 

Wouldn’t it be great instead if we could find a way to efficiently use all the arid land being created by desertification? Maybe grow some fuel that doesn’t require water; a plant that virtually takes care of itself? Rodrigo Wayland Morales, a college student in Chile, suspected that Opuntia ficus-indica, or prickly pear, might fit the bill. He hated to see tons of discarded cactus pads going to waste each year in his country after they’d been contaminated by insects. Seemed like there was a better use for them, so he obtained funding to build the world’s first biogas cactus project in the very dry Chilean desert region known as the Elqui Valley.

Source: http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/articles/2014/01/prickly-pear-cactus-nuisance-or-bioenergy-opportunity.html

Source: http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/articles/2014/01/prickly-pear-cactus-nuisance-or-bioenergy-opportunity.html

Since then, Morales has created partnerships with companies in Chile, Brazil, Ecuador, and Colombia to build anaerobic biogas projects. Using anaerobic digestion, the prickly pear is turned into biogas, which can then be used for a variety of purposes. It can be used to generate electricity, it can be used in place of natural gas, and it can be used in specially adapted motor vehicles instead of gasoline. Cactus power!

This all made the news a year and a half ago, but failed to make much of a splash. As per usual, a bigger media splash came from Western researchers who conducted some research but didn’t actually build a biogas reactor. But, hey, there’s nothing like a peer-reviewed study, amiright?

These UK researchers considered prickly pear the perfect biofuel source because cacti don’t require much water. But why is that? Turns out the secret is crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM). I’d never heard of it either.

CAM is how cacti perform photosynthesis; it’ what allows them to grow on arid and semi-arid land that can’t grow corn, sugarcane, or any other of those ethanol crops that receive outlandish subsidies. CAM plants close their stomata during the day and open them at night. Nighttime is when they gather carbon dioxide from the air. They convert it into an acid called malate. Then, during the daytime, the malate is sent to the chloroplasts and converted back into carbon dioxide. Because the stomata remain closed during the day, the plant doesn’t lose water from evaporation like other plants do. This process allows plants such as the pineapple and the cactus to thrive in arid areas. Khan Academy has the science-y details.

Source: http://cambiodesign.org

Source: http://cambiodesign.org

Semi-arid and arid land comprises 12 to 18 percent of the Earth’s land. Most of it, minus Las Vegas, Dubai, Cairo, and other ill-placed cities, is pretty barren. Some of it is used as grazing land, while the rest just sits there. Mike Mason, one of the UK researchers involved in the cacti study thinks that somewhere between 4 and 12 percent of the world’s semi-arid land would need to be converted to cacti cropland to provide as much electricity around the world each year as natural gas does today. It doesn’t have to all be hot desert, either. The beauty of prickly pear is that it tolerates cold snaps well and can be used as a feed for livestock. Plus, we get to eat the fruit.

Source: http://www.pricklypearextract.net

Source: http://www.pricklypearextract.net

How does one go about turning prickly pear into biogas? You harvest the fin-like pads, which just happen to have the percentage of fibrous material that is the sweet spot for anaerobic digestion. This is the process by which microorganisms break down organic material in the absence of oxygen. Prickly pear pads are ideal because they degrade quickly—five to ten times faster than manure. This means the time needed to convert the plant material to usable gas is . . . I don’t know, because Google wouldn’t tell me. But it’s shorter than for many other plants.

Even more good news: The byproducts of the anaerobic digestion process that creates biogas are digestate and water. Water needs no introduction. It’s a good thing, and we can always find a use for it. Digestate is the organic material leftover afterward. It’s a great fertilizer. Not only does it help soil retain moisture and plants grow, it also inhibits some types of plant diseases. Cactus = Biogas + fertilizer + water. It’s a win-win-win.

The only sticking point is the fact that biogas is mostly methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas. When it is burned it also emits carbon dioxide. However, biogas advocates like to remind people that this is still better than burning fossil fuels because the cactus absorbed carbon from the air while it was growing. Thus, it emits the same amount of carbon that it has recently absorbed, making it carbon neutral.

So maybe the prickly pear is a win-win-win-win.

 

 

Posted on: July 13, 2015, 2:20 pm Category: Admin

Ghost Bikes: Memento Mori of the Automobile Age

On the Internet a picture is worth a thousand words and at least a couple of links:

Source: http://ghostbikes.org/new-york-city/james-langergaard.

Source: http://ghostbikes.org/new-york-city/james-langergaard.

This is a ghost bike. It marks the spot where a bicyclist was killed, most likely by a motorist. It’s a vivid reminder that one of our favorite and healthiest recreation activities is deadly. In 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 741 bicyclists died in collisions with motor vehicles. This represents a significant decline since statistics were first tabulated in 1975, when over 1,000 bicyclists were killed. That’s good news, but not good enough. Ghost bikes are a visceral reminder that when cars and bikes collide, the bicyclist pays the biggest, and often the ultimate, price.

These somber memorials have sprung up around the world since 2003, placed by fellow bicyclists and the victims’ loved ones as both a tribute to those who lost their lives and as a caution to motorists to be more careful. Unlike the typical roadside memorials of crosses and teddy bears, a ghost bike provides stark information about how a person died, imbued with additional symbolism of white paint, representing purity and innocence. Bicyclists are vulnerable; as victims they are innocent. We have all seen reckless bicyclists, perhaps, but none has ever deserved to die.

Wearing a helmet drastically reduces the risk of head injury. In 2013, 63 percent of bicyclists who were killed were not wearing a helmet. Source: http://floridacyclinglaw.com/blog/archives/bicycle-helmet-statistics.

Wearing a helmet drastically reduces the risk of head injury. In 2013, 63 percent of bicyclists who were killed were not wearing a helmet. Source: http://floridacyclinglaw.com/blog/archives/bicycle-helmet-statistics.

Cars kill so many people in so many different ways, but almost always because of driver error. We should all be excited for the arrival of driverless cars to our streets. Will they be foolproof? Of course not. Will they raise new problems? Undoubtedly. Will they save lives? Certainly. After nearly 1.7 million miles driven collectively, driverless cars have been involved in only 12 minor traffic accidents, but none of them were the fault of the driverless car.

Google is introducing its driverless car to California roads this summer. This is the company’s own car design—not their modified Priuses and Lexuses that they’ve used in developing their light detecting and ranging (LIDAR) technology. It features a removable steering wheel, brake pedal, and accelerator. Finally—nothing to obstruct your extravehicular activities.

You can mosey down to a dealership (presumably) in 2017 and buy one of these cutie pies yourself. Those of us who witnessed the Internet revolution first hand should be excited about this. Sure, driving is fun. Except when it’s not. The vehicle of the future will see bicyclists in all our blind spots—even when the furiously pulsating late afternoon sun is searing our retinas. I hope the Google car will save the lives of those 700 bicyclists each year, not to mention the 33,000 others who perish on our roads.

Source: Google.

Source: Google.

I saw my first ghost bike a few months ago, turning right onto a busy road from another busy road. Its spectral form stood in sharp contrast to the surrounding deep-green foliage; a placard above it read “Ghost Bike.” The tableau caught my eye in a “woah—what’s that?” sort of way. I dashed straight for Google when I got home for more information. Up popped the details:

Source: https://plus.google.com/+LeonShaner/posts/fhimMMb8pxt.

Source: https://plus.google.com/+LeonShaner/posts/fhimMMb8pxt.

A woman—a 26-year-old mother of three—was crossing the road on foot with her bike when she was hit by the driver of a Jeep. She had just gotten off a nearby bike trail that I myself have frequently enjoyed. The ghost bike was placed by the Michigan Mountain Biking Association, an organization that had no connection to the victim.

Let’s honor those we’ve lost and create safer roads by embracing autonomous driving technology. We owe it to those whose lives have been cut short and to future generations, which if they’re lucky will never suffer the effects of distracted driving or road rage.

Source: http://bostonbiker.org/2012/10/03/ghost-bike-project/.

Source: http://bostonbiker.org/2012/10/03/ghost-bike-project/.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: June 16, 2015, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , ,

Helium: A Noble, Rare, and Versatile Gas

It’s graduation season: Seal some money in an envelope, drag a lawn chair over to the driveway, and dodge that cluster of helium balloons while you snag yourself a slice of cake.

balloons-small-mylar-and-latex-balloons-276x300

Source: Balloonballoons.com

While you’re shoving that cake in your piehole, contemplate that cluster of helium balloons and think about this: The Federal Helium Reserve, which holds 10 billion cubic feet of helium—much of the world’s usable supply—was scheduled to shut its doors in 2013. Congress passed the Helium Stewardship Act to keep it open, thereby averting a global crisis.

Now put your down your fork and think about that. Yes: The United States has a Federal Helium Reserve. It’s an underground wonderland that stretches from Kansas to Texas, with its main storage facility in a cave just outside Amarillo. The government established it back when air travel by dirigible was the height of fashion.

Source: http://flickr.com/photos/29998366@N02/4796119948. Interior of the Hindenburg c. 1936.*

Source: http://flickr.com/photos/29998366@N02/4796119948. Interior of the Hindenburg c. 1936.*

The Texas facility is the world’s largest repository of helium. The reason why it was scheduled to close in 2013 is because the government was in the process of deaccessioning it via the Helium Privatization Act of 1996. This dandy piece of legislation exemplifies the heady days of the Clinton administration, when Newt Gingrich was determined to shut down the government. No government was good government.

Being of sound mind and body, you ask: Why in the world does the federal government control the world supply of a gas that is used as a party favor? Because balloons are just one of helium’s many uses. Helium is not only a noble gas; it is also a versatile gas. It is used in MRI scanners, fiber optic manufacturing, arc welding, and in LCD screens. Its top use is in cryogenics. It also cools superconducting magnets and is used to grow crystals for silicon wafers. Much of the helium used for these applications is supercooled liquid helium—the coldest substance on Earth.

Liquid helium cooled below the Lambda point, where it exhibits properties of superfluidity. Source: Wikipedia.

Liquid helium cooled below the Lambda point, where it exhibits properties of superfluidity. Source: Wikipedia.

In fact, some scientists get mad when helium is wasted on balloons. Each Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon of Snoopy or SpongeBob uses up to 400,000 cubic feet of helium, which is simply released into the air when the parade is over. Meanwhile, researcher Richard Shoemaker “will sometimes see two- and three-week delays in delivery of the liquid helium used to cool his University of Colorado facility’s giant magnets. His worry isn’t that his research will have to wait—it is that the millions of dollars of equipment it requires will be knocked out,” writes Kelly Jane Torrance in the Weekly Standard.

Source: Associated Press.

Source: Associated Press.

Paradoxically, helium is the second most abundant element in the universe but rare in Earth’s atmosphere. We can’t make more of it, meaning it’s nonrenewable. On Earth, it’s produced by slow radioactive decay deep underground. The Federal Helium Reserve collects helium that is recovered in the natural gas of Texas and Oklahoma, which is naturally high in helium. The helium is separated from the natural gas and transported by pipeline to the facility.

The Crude Helium Enrichment Unit outside Amarillo, TX. Source: U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The Crude Helium Enrichment Unit outside Amarillo, TX. Source: U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The Helium Privatization Act ordered the U.S. Department of the Interior to sell off the reserve by 2005. But you know how the federal government works. It was 2007 before they started getting around to it, at which time they began drawing down the amount of helium held in the facility. By 2011 they still weren’t done, but helium supplies were running low. By 2013, with helium production seriously in danger, Congress had a change of heart and decided to retain control of the reserve, basically because no private buyer stepped forward to take over the duties from the Feds.

When Congress reversed itself with the Helium Stewardship Act, their actions were swiftly applauded in the media, not the least by Gail Collins in the New York Times, whose op-ed piece, “An Ode to Helium,” noted that the resounding bipartisan support led to a final Congressional vote of 394 to 1. “The lone ‘nay’ came from Representative Linda Sanchez of California, who accidentally pressed the wrong button,” she wrote. Collins further noted that “The helium program is great; it provided the country with a crucial product that business wasn’t prepared to produce. It spurred economic growth and scientific research and made enough profit to pay the taxpayers back.”

Source: USGS Mineral Study 2013.

Source: USGS Mineral Study 2013.

The Helium Stewardship Act did preserve the U.S. supply, but a remaining problem is the fact that the government sells helium below market prices. Instead of dealing with this valuable gas as a commodity, like natural gas, for instance, it sold it only with an eye toward recouping the costs incurred in running the reserve. The upshot is the price of helium on the market is out of whack, basically much lower than if the law of supply and demand were in effect.

Yet, by 2014 worldwide helium production was up, thanks to Qatar. The tiny Arab state is now the world’s second largest helium producer after adding a new production capacity at their existing facility. They now produce 75.4 million liters of the gas, about 14 percent of the world’s supply as opposed to the U.S.’s 33 percent. The Qatar operation is the world’s largest helium production plant.

But the demand for helium continues to outstrip supply, especially during peak times of the year. This has led to rising prices. And to add to the severity of the situation: Congress only funded the Federal Helium Reserve through 2021, after which it once again faces privatization or shuttering. Enter the Liquid Helium Purchase Program: The American Physical Society, Defense Logistics Agency, and American Chemical Society have teamed up to make sure that all universities and research facilities have access to the helium they need. These three entities can negotiate better prices on liquid helium on behalf of these institutions, which frequently need only small amounts. This will help avoid the wild price fluctuations that these institutions often experience—anything from $8 per liter to $25 per liter.

The moral of the story is that all our natural resources need to be carefully managed and considered if we are to achieve true sustainability. Fossil fuels get the brunt of the natural resource attention, but the unsung heroes of the periodic chart deserve some love too. Our high-tech world requires that our political leaders engage in critical thinking and foresight to properly manage our natural capital. As Shoemaker told Torrance, “The United States needs to look at helium as a strategic resource and manage it as they do any other their other strategic resources for defense and technology purposes. They need to understand there’s a need for it in the foreseeable future. Do we depend on Qatar, and Algeria, and Russia to provide us that?”

Source: Wikipedia.

Source: Wikipedia.

*You know the Hindenburg exploded upon landing in New Jersey in 1937, killing 36 people as the hydrogen went up in flames. But did you know this was the sixth major airship disaster in just sixteen years? All told, 287 people died in these infernos; 77 people died when the USS Akron, which was the largest helium-filled airship ever constructed and which served as a flying aircraft carrier for the U.S. Navy, was destroyed in a storm off the coast of New Jersey in April 1933. It was the deadliest airship disaster in history. No wonder these behemoths are no longer soaring through our skies.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: June 2, 2015, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , ,