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Category: Environment / Ecology (Page 1 of 9)

Waterproof Lipstick is Forever


Ever more frequently one sees “forever chemicals” mentioned in the news. They’ve become so pervasive they’re found in most water supplies, in the rainfall over Antarctica, and in the bloodstream of every person.

The forever chemicals being talked about are members of a large family of manmade chemicals called PFAS, PFOS, and PFOAS. The archtype of this family is perfluorooctanoic acid. These have been manufactured since the 1940s and do not occur in nature. More members of this family are developed each year.

Perfluoro- and polyfluoro- chemicals have become so widespread because they are so useful. Most of them repel both water and oils. They’re used to make Teflon and other non-stick coatings, stain resistant carpet, water-repellent clothes, fire-fighting foam, ski wax, waterproof cosmetics, and many other products.

These molecules are very stable so they don’t break down in the environment. As a result, they’ve found their way into almost everything — air, water, and soil all over the planet, and inside our bodies.

They are not harmless. In recent years, studies have shown possible causal connections with testicular and kidney cancer, fetal problems like low birth weight, early puberty, immune system problems, liver damage, thyroid disease, blood pressure problems during pregnancy, and colitis.

Study results thus far have been inconclusive but it’s a major concern because these chemicals are everywhere and we can’t effectively get rid of them. They become more abundant each year.

Waterproof Lipstick

Published in The Journal of Environmental Science & Technology on June 15, 2021 is a peer-reviewed study conducted by researchers at Notre Dame University. The study shows that roughly half of the 231 cosmetics tested contained PFAS. Most of these products did not show PFAS on their list of ingredients. About 60 percent of eyeliners, foundations, and liquid lipsticks, and 80 percent of waterproof mascaras contained PFAS. How much are you ingesting? There’s no solid data on this question but the answer is clearly not zero.

Another problem with waterproof lipstick is that it works really well. Too well. Lipstick prints on water and wine glasses are durable. Unlike conventional lipstick, waterproof lipstick is unaffected by the high pressure, heat, and chemicals used in commercial dishwashers. Nobody wants to receive a glass with somebody else’s lipstick print on it. This means that each glass must be inspected and lipstick scrubbed off by hand. A mini-industry has sprung up around this problem that offers special tools, rim scrubbers, and harsh chemicals to help restaurants and bars deal with the problem. This results in more labor and higher costs which will be passed on to the customer.

Please keep the above in mind when making a purchasing decision. You must decide for yourself if it’s worth it.

Fossil Fuel Companies Hold Planet Hostage


Sounds sensational, doesn’t it? Click bait. Well, after reading this, you tell me.

It’s not widely known but over the past 100 years, investors have demanded agreements, treaties from the governments of countries they invest in. There are thousands of these treaties, including with the United States. Investors understandably don’t like risk and do everything possible to eliminate risk. Countries, especially poor countries, will jump through hoops, bend over backwards, go to any length to attract foreign investment. They’ll give everything up and sign such agreements in order to attract foreign money.

Petroleum Jack Pump

In the case of fossil fuel companies, such treaties enable them to demand hefty compensation if the government interferes with the business in any way, revokes permits to drill, permits to lay pipelines, restricts extraction, and so forth. We’re talking payouts that can amount to hundreds of billions of dollars if/when these treaties are invoked, far beyond the means of many countries.

And, it’s starting already. The U.S.A. is being sued to the tune of a billion dollars for cancelling the Keystone Pipeline. The governments of Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and others are being sued for four billion dollars over their phasing out of coal power plants, requiring environmental impact assessments, and blocking of extraction projects. Anything that interferes with the business is grounds to sue for damages.

These treaties enable fossil fuel companies to hold us hostage and prevent the implementation of measures to mitigate climate change. Oil companies can make it too expensive to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, hamstringing the ability of countries to deal with climate change.

It’s an insane situation where the urgent need to act on climate change will be derailed by old treaties from the middle of the last century. But here we are. They have us over a barrel (of oil).

To Support Coal Buy an EV


What? Yes, it’s true. Read on.

This post is intended for my fellow West Virginians. West Virginia is coal country so a lot of West Virginians support the coal industry.

I look at the big picture as an engineer. Now that the pollution problems associated with coal were mostly solved decades ago, I see coal as just another fossil fuel that we burn to obtain energy. It also happens to be what we have an abundance of in West Virginia.

I’ve watched climate change coming since 1990 and it’s going to bring huge difficulties. You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. The bottom line is humans have to eventually stop burning things to obtain energy. Achieving this goal is going to take a long time. I’m a realist. It’s going to take far longer than we can afford but that’s how it’s going to be. We’ll be burning coal for a long time to come.

However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do to reduce our CO2 output. In fact, there’s something we can do to reduce CO2, save our hard-earned money, and support the coal industry, all at the same time. Sound impossible? It’s not. I’ll explain why.

Power Plants and Efficiency

To explain this we need to talk a bit about engineering, but this is something anyone can and should understand. It’s not complicated. Engineers who design machines or electronics are always interested in efficiency. In simple terms, efficiency means how much “input stuff” do you have to put into a device or system to get a certain amount of desired “output stuff” and how much is lost along the way.

In the simple case of an electric motor, if you put in 100 watts of electric power and get 75 watts of mechanical power out, the motor is 75 percent efficient. The other 25 percent is wasted/lost as heat. Nothing is ever 100 percent efficient. There are always losses.

If you have two or more devices one after the other (in series), you multiply together the efficiencies of each device to find out what the total system efficiency is. So, taking some typical figures, if we have a gasoline engine that’s 25 percent efficient, followed by a transmission (geartrain) that’s 80 percent efficient, the total efficiency at the output of the transmission is 0.25 times 0.80 equals 0.20 or 20 percent efficiency. The other 80 percent is lost as heat. This principle will become important below.

Power plant technology has improved continuously since the steam engine was invented. Efficiency is, by far, the most important factor in the design. Power plant efficiency means how much of the chemical / thermal energy in the fuel ends up coming out of the plant in the desired form and how much is lost as heat. Early steam engines were horribly inefficient. Only a few percent. Coal-fired power plants built in the 1970s achieve an efficiency of around 35 percent. So 35 percent of the thermal energy in the fuel leaves the plant as electricity. It may not seem like it, but this is pretty impressive. Modern coal plants built in recent years reach 45 percent efficiency and this is probably close to the maximum possible.

As an aside, natural gas power plants can employ designs that are not possible with coal. The most advanced natural gas plants can reach an unbelievable 60 percent efficiency. But, we’re not talking about natural gas here, we’re talking about coal. But I’ll mention this figure once more at the end of the article.

It probably goes without saying but I’ll point it out anyway. The more efficient a power plant is, the less fuel it consumes, but also the less CO2 it produces to generate a given output. This will become important below.

Internal Combustion Engines (ICE)

Now let’s look at internal combustion engine (ICE) cars. The overall efficiency of modern cars ranges from 12 to 28 percent. That’s the system efficiency measured from the energy in the fuel to moving the car down the road. But the 28 percent figure only applies to certain cars under certain conditions. My little Corolla probably gets close to that 28 percent figure when on a flat highway, at a reasonable speed, no headwind, I’ll get 38 mpg. When city driving, that figure drops way down and I get 24 or 25 mpg. Many cars, SUVs, pickups, do much worse. At no time does any ICE powered vehicle reach the efficiency of the oldest coal-fired power plant. Most of the time the coal plant is 2 to 3 times as efficient at turning fuel into usable power.

Ignoring the frictional losses of all the moving parts in an internal combustion engine, a problem it’s had since it was invented is something called the “power curve”. An IC engine produces maximum power at a certain RPM, maximum torque at a different RPM, and maximum efficiency at yet another RPM. At low RPM it produces little power or torque. At idle, it produces no usable output but still consumes fuel.

Electric Motors and Cars

Modern electric vehicles are powered by 3-phase induction motors. Small electric motors achieve 70 or 80 percent efficiency but the efficiency rises rapidly for larger motors. At the 100 horsepower level, such 3-phase motors are more than 95 percent efficient. Larger ones are even more efficient. And that’s running on fixed mains power at a fixed voltage and frequency.

The 3-phase motors in cars are powered by a sophisticated motor controller that varies the voltage and frequency as the motor’s speed and load changes. That gives these motors a flat power curve and even higher efficiency. At low RPM / low speed they produce lots of torque. At high RPM / high speed they produce the horsepower the car needs. The efficiency stays constant at all speeds.

So what’s the system efficiency of an electric car? The lithium batteries used in electric vehicles have a charge/discharge efficiency around 85 percent. So 85 percent of the electricity you put in comes back out to power the car. Fast charging pushes that number down towards 80 percent. Charging slowly at home pushes it up close to 90 percent.

So the motor gives at least 95 percent efficiency, the motor controller is 98 percent efficient, the battery 85 percent, there is no transmission. Multiplying those together we have around 79 percent efficiency from the charger plug to moving the car down the road. I’m ignoring regenerative braking that harvests the energy from braking to charge the battery. No ICE vehicle can do that, harvest the energy from the brakes and convert it into gasoline.

The electrical grid that transports electric power from the power plant to the home or charging station is very efficient. Over the short distances found in West Virginia, it’s nearly 100 percent efficient and can be ignored.

Conclusion

And so we’ll pull all the numbers together here: coal-fired power plant at 35 percent efficiency and 79 percent efficiency in the vehicle means 27 percent system efficiency from coal to moving the vehicle, any vehicle, down the road. All the time, city, or highway. That’s equal to my Corolla under rare perfect conditions. With a more modern coal-fired plant, it’s 36 percent efficient from coal to moving the vehicle down the road. Well beyond what an ICE vehicle can achieve. “Fueling” an EV from coal generates, on average, one-half to one-third the CO2 of burning gasoline or diesel in an internal combustion engine.

What’s more, the cost of that energy is much lower than buying gasoline or diesel. For example, a high-end Tesla Model S with the big battery pack option, completely discharged, at the electric rates we pay in West Virginia, costs about $12.00 to “fill up”. On top of that, your money isn’t going to a company in Texas, Mexico, Venezuela, The Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, or Russia. It stays right here in West Virginia. West Virginia generates about twice as much electricity as it uses locally. The rest is sold to out-of-state utilities. Availability of locally generated power is not a problem.

For those of you not in West Virginia or coal-country, if your electricity comes from hydro, wind, solar, or nuclear, like in the Pacific Northwest, no fuel is burned and no CO2 generated to power an EV. If your power comes from a modern gas-fired plant like in Florida, efficiency is 2 to 4 times that of an ICE vehicle and about one-third the cost.

As soon as I can solve the charging-at-home problem, I’ll be getting an EV and it will have a bumper sticker that says “This Car is Powered by Coal”.

tl;dr version: It’s more efficient, cheaper, and produces less CO2 to “fuel” an EV with coal-generated electricity than an equivalent ICE vehicle burning gasoline or diesel. Roughly twice as efficient and at one quarter the cost.

Joe Manchin and the Pipeline


Let’s talk about Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) for a bit. Manchin is in a uniquely powerful position in the U.S. Senate, not because he deserves it but by luck. The various states have managed to elect a Senate divided almost exactly in half so that one Democratic senator can be the deciding vote on legislation that affects the whole country. Joe Manchin is taking full advantage of his good luck for personal gain.

West Virginia is not a rich state. It was once thriving with industries that have moved to China. The coal industry used to employ far more people than today. There are many poor and struggling families here. Why would Senator Manchin block legislation that would bring hundreds of millions in aid to West Virginia families?

Since the 2020 election, Manchin’s behavior was puzzling and frustrating to many. He took positions that were not beneficial to West Virginians. He negotiated to reduce benefits to West Virginia. He opposed the Build Back Better bill. His actions were what one would expect of a Republican catering to the whims of the billionaires who fund them, not a Democrat. The term “DINO” (Democrat in name only) was applied to him. Some wondered if he was just a shill for the Republican Party. Several Republicans tried to get him to join the Republican Party. It was very strange. What was he really up to?

Sixty years ago my grandmother taught me many things about politics, governance, and leadership. One thing she taught me was when you see a politician do something that makes no sense or do something that harms the people he’s representing, there’s an ulterior motive that you’re not seeing.

So what was behind this odd behavior? For some background, consider that Joe Manchin is in the coal business. His company, Enersystems, is a brokerage for waste coal, sometimes called dirty coal. So we know that concern about climate change and the environment isn’t high on his list of priorities, and he’s in the fossil fuel business. In Congress he chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. In recent years, Manchin received the most funding from the oil and gas industry of any senator, and participates in weekly meetings with lobbyists for ExxonMobil, other fossil fuel companies, and fossil fuel PACs.

Manchin has his business in a “blind trust” and says he “has no idea what they’re doing.” However, blind trust or not, he and his family ultimately reap the rewards of catering to the fossil fuel industry.

The less-than-obvious focus of Manchin’s attention is the Mountain Valley Pipeline. This is a pipeline project proposed in 2014 and was originally expected to be completed in 2018. The Mountain Valley Pipeline is to be a large, 2 million dekatherms per day, 304 mile line extending from North Central West Virginia to Southeast Maryland and beyond. It’s intended to carry natural gas obtained by fracking in West Virginia to East Coast users.

The pipeline has had difficulties obtaining and keeping various permits to cross the Jefferson National Forest, more than a thousand rivers and streams, as well as the famed Appalachian Trail. The project is 92 percent complete but has been bogged down in court actions that invalidated permits issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Manchin has been focused on getting the project moving again. He managed to get an energy permit bill attached to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2022. This Act had to be passed by the end of September 2022 to provide funding to prevent a government shutdown. Support for the Act in Congress was insufficient with Manchin’s rider bill attached, so it was removed and scrapped. As a result we can expect Manchin’s primary focus to remain on the pipeline issue and he will continue to expend his political capital on this issue instead of the needs of West Virginians.

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