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Cosmic Log: Jan. 28-Feb. 3, 2006

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: Readers share insights on ethanol and other alternative-energy futures. Plus: The science of hibernation ... Latest chapter in small-fish story ... Microfossils mapped ... Three years after Columbia.

Feb. 3, 2006 |
Your bright ideas on energy: Is ethanol the answer for America's energy needs? Or is the alcohol-based fuel actually more trouble than it's worth? How are things working out in Brazil, which is currently the closest thing to the "Saudi Arabia of ethanol"? And what about biodiesel, wind-generated energy, hydrogen fuel cells and all the other renewable-energy visions of the future? Cosmic Log readers weighed in on these and other questions, in response to reports about President Bush's latest energy initiative as well as our look at the upside and downside of a future "ethanol economy."

Some readers were down on ethanol — quoting claims that corn-based ethanol, at least, takes more energy to produce than the finished fuel yields. Other readers talked up ethanol — saying that even though it's a carbon-based fuel, it's more environmentally friendly than oil because it's produced from plants that act as a carbon sink.

The environmental pros as well as the cons are subject to debate. For example, when figuring the cost of ethanol production, should you include the energy that's used to build the tractor that tills the corn? When considering the ins and outs of the carbon cycle, should you consider that forests are better carbon sinks than fields of corn? In last week's issue of the journal Science, experts said that the calculations used to figure out the costs and benefits of biofuels were "poorly understood," and that "further research into environmental metrics is needed."

Consider what follows as a virtual town-hall meeting on energy policy in general, and ethanol in particular. You'll find reports from across America, as well as Pakistan, Ireland and Australia. But let's start with Brazil, the world's largest producer of ethanol:

Peter Jacobs: "While in high school, 25 years ago, I converted my secondhand Toyota Truck into an alcohol-burning vehicle. Grass clippings from my lawn business and outdated M&M candy from the local distributor were utilized to make the alcohol I needed. The smell of the exhaust was sweet and smelled like candy. I even had an ATF small producers license to make alcohol.

"Today, I live and work in Brazil. It is amazing the foresight these marvelous people have, and also their courage to go forward and experiment with alternative fuels. Their national petroleum company, PetroBras, is headlong into research and commercial development. The government is light-years ahead of the U.S. in stimulating research and commercial development through favorable laws and financial incentives — all the while, working hand in hand with the green consciousness of the land. The Brazilians are very worried about environmental impacts to their environment, contrary to popular belief in the U.S. They also consider themselves a large producer of carbon credits for the world's consumption. They are one of the biggest defenders of the Kyoto Protocol.

"Of great interest here is biodiesel. All kinds of research are ongoing to turn their rich resources of bio-oils into diesel, which does not have negative impacts on the greenhouse effect. Mr. Bush needs to come off his high horse and sign the Kyoto Protocol if he wants to portray a serious image of greenhouse concern. ..."

Adam, Brisbane, Australia: "I think ethanol and methanol need to be seen for what they are — steppingstones to a pure renewable energy economy that'll keep us moving until batteries and/or fuel cells are up to speed. Energy density is the biggest thing in ethanol's favor over hydrogen, and the fact that with cellulose decomposition to make the sugar it becomes a net energy source."

Michael: "Well, folks, I know I won't get much support here. But ethanol can do it all. A lot of people have misconceptions, particularly the press, about the fuel. They look at flawed studies and say, well here we go, the stuff pollutes (the UC-Berkeley study in Science said the pollution comes from fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides, all of which could be removed from the manufacture of ethanol), it gets subsidies (if gasoline's subsidies were removed, a study in 1998 showed the cost of gas per gallon would be $15.14, and why does Senator Cornyn in the N.Y. Times [registration required] complain about ethanol and subsidies and cheer nuclear power, which has had some of the hugest subsidies of all through the years?) ...

"It requires no overhaul of infrastructure, it does not require burning forests or taking food away from people. Most of our crops are grown for feed, and we can process alcohol, feed the dregs to the animals [and] use the leftover for fertilizer. What it's about is better-designed energy systems. About co-generation, turning waste into useful product. Growing your way to energy freedom, cleaning up the planet, reducing the greenhouse effect. Ethanol and polyculture farming can do it all. ..."

Lloyd Townsend, Nashville, Tenn.: "... You quote [researcher] Mark Jacobson as saying that ethanol is 'not beneficial in terms of air pollution, and if it is beneficial in terms of climate change, it's very marginal' — in regards to byproducts of the combustion process, but primarily in its release of large amounts of carbon dioxide when burned. Absolutely true.  But the carbon that is released is what is known as 'current-cycle' carbon; carbon that would have been released anyway as the plant source decayed, and carbon that that same plant took from the atmosphere as it grew.  Net carbon added to the cycle: zero. Petroleum, on the other hand, releases sequestered carbon when burned, adding to the carbon load in the current cycle.

"The United States has the agricultural capacity, with new technologies that can utilize the entire plant in alcohol production, to become the dominant producer of ethanol (and methanol) in the world, and be the primary exporter of alcohol fuels to the rest of the world.  Talk about turning the tables on OPEC!

"As regards the pollution load of ethanol fuels — before I started using a blend of gasoline and E-85 [a blend with 85 percent ethanol] in my 1991 Astro van, it would barely pass the emissions test.  This year, after running a self-blended approximately 25 percent ethanol blend for several months, this van passed the emissions test with levels some 40 percent below the maximum permitted levels."

Gary W. Johnson, McGregor, Texas: "The carbon in biologically produced ethanol is not fossil carbon. It does not count as a greenhouse pollutant because it was already cycling between the surface and the atmosphere. There is no net addition to greenhouse CO2."

Mike Camden, Jefferson City, Mo.: "The simple problem with E-85 gas is that it doesn't save you measurable amounts of money and reduces your horsepower. With E-85 you only get about 85 percent of your normal mpg (if memory serves). Last year when gas was so high, E-85 wasn't any better once you figured your total spending on gas for a week. People don't think about Middle Eastern oil cartels when they are paying at the pump, they are thinking about what they will have to give up soon to afford to go to work. If E-85 saved them real money at the pump then they would buy into it. Until then it is going to remain the pipe dream of a few. Of course, hydrogen power for cars is even further out there in the future, so I guess E-85 isn't so bad as a near-term replacement after all. Just don't expect it to be near as popular as it could be if it is just as expensive as the thing it replaces."

Jill MacKenzie, Rochester, N.Y.: "Environmental costs of corn-based ethanol are more than just air pollution. Producing corn sends tons of topsoil and amazing amounts of nitrogen down the Mississippi to the Gulf. This gives us the dead zone."

Pamela Stevens, Pavilion Technologies: "A couple of weeks ago, I learned about an interesting new plant being built in Mead, Nebraska.  It’s a 'closed-loop' ethanol plant — designed to be extremely efficient while minimizing environmental impact.  Their Web site is very informative...."

Harley Bowers, Ohio EPA: "Let's get real. Corn ethanol is an energy sink, it costs more in energy to produce than you get out. Anything carbon-based is going to exacerbate global warming, be it corn, switchgrass or last week's garbage. We need renewable sources like efficient wind and solar power, plus efficient small nuclear power plants based on the Swedish units they have all over their country. Oil is for plastics, no longer for fuel.  The sooner we realize this, the sooner we can move on to other crises of our own making."

Alan Schroeder, Cleveland: "When will people start looking at the fundamentals? It takes more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol then you get from burning it. So if it costs only a dollar to make ethanol, that is only because they are using some low-cost fuel such as coal to produce it. If you assume you use oil as your source of energy to produce ethanol, it would take at least 1.1 gallons of oil to produce one gallon of ethanol. If you are using coal, the pollution impact from sulfur and CO2 (greenhouse gas) would be enormous. So ethanol is not the answer, and every engineer who has done the overall energy balance can tell you and show you this. The answer is to make cars that get great mileage. The technology exists today to make family-size cars get 80-plus miles per gallon. By taxing gasoline so it is, say, $10 a gallon, these cars would be built. We next need to convert the economy to safe nuclear power (the technology already exists) so we can get off coal, which is polluting and warming the entire planet up."

Jay DeZinno: "I am all for the production of ethanol. I bought my 2000 Mazda B-3000 pickup specifically knowing one day, when it is available in Connecticut, I can run on E-85. Until that time I am stuck using gasoline (currently a 10 percent ethanol mix in Connecticut). However, I think the whole energy initiative is concentrating too much on cars and trucks.  Home heating oil and natural gas are at all-time highs.  I live in a well-insulated apartment and it still costs me far too much to heat. I asked my parents how much their oil bill is every month, and this winter it was anywhere between $300 and $700! We need houses that can run on ethanol and heat efficiently."

Raymond P. Bilodeau, Worcester, Mass.: "All alternate-fuel options have to deal with creating a distribution/storage system from scratch, or almost from scratch, which is a huge impediment to market access. There is one alternate fuel which is available in any city or town, is not dangerous to store, and which might be one which the processor/user would pay you to use: used cooking oil. Your local Chinese-food and fried-food places produce gallons of this stuff that they have to pay to remove. If you have a diesel motor, you need only a $200-$300 gadget to heat the oil to the point it can be used in your motor. Cooperatives are already springing up all over the place to collect and strain the used oil (all that you need to do to prepare the oil for use) and store it for their members. Users report no change in engine performance, and the only other change is a slightly sweet smell to the emission. I suspect that if diesel motor cars were more available in the U.S., every Chinese restaurant owner would set up a fuel station."

Brian Hogan, Foxtown, Ireland: "Solar energy, like wind, can also be used to generate hydrogen and looks very promising as an energy source. Apart from cost, one of the big problems is where to put the large panels. My suggestion is to roof highways (particularly in the South) with solar panels. The infrastructure is there, and there's no problem with land acquisition, particularly near urban areas. Another benefit might be a road surface protected from the elements. A first step could be an experimental 100-mile stretch of highway to gain hard estimates of what is achievable and the related costs."

Shamshir, Lahore, Pakistan: "This is quite encouraging to note that Mr. Bush has started giving attention to the most important need of our time — that is, looking for choices of producing cheap energy with some surety for continuous supply. The world can no longer depend upon oil and gas from a particular region. ... I suggest that Mr. Bush should do the following two important things immediately: 1. He should stop wasting trillions of dollars on unnecessary wars with all the hatred and disturbance in the world and to spend most resources on research and finding alternative sources of cheap energy, and 2. He should call a conference of world leaders and should make an agreement with them to boost the supply of oil and gas at cheaper rates, as these resources are a gift of nature which must be shared with all mankind. Anyone stopping or disrupting supply or asking unreasonably high prices should be warned or even punished by the international community."

Greg Williams, Dubuque, Iowa: "Why should we take these small steps from converting from oil, to ethanol, to hydrogen? Why don't we save time and money and our environment and go directly to hydrogen. Ethanol sounds great, if you need votes from farmers. The money spent in converting corn to alcohol on a larger scale is research money we should invest in hydrogen research instead. Likewise, the tax incentives that are given for ethanol can be switched to hydrogen research. As for the argument that it will cost billions of dollars to have the infrastructure for hydrogen, I don't see that as a downside. Some companies are going to have to make the new stations, service them, and install them. This creates jobs and will stimulate the economy...."

Wayne Freeman: "This is the first time I have seen in print the concept of using wind power to advance the use of hydrogen as a future energy source, though it is a concept that has made a tremendous amount of sense to me for some time now.  I've heard that the U.S., besides being the Saudi Arabia of coal, is also the Saudi Arabia of wind, with vast areas from the Dakotas south to west Texas highly suitable for tapping this 'free' energy.  Why not recognize the 'critical' situation regarding global warming and use the clean energy we have been blessed with?"

Curt, Houston: "Wind energy will never replace more conventional power generation because you just can't count on it. Backup supplies based on fossil fuel or nuclear will be needed for reliability on windless days. And using electricity to make hydrogen to fuel cars requires vast new investments to be available in quantity, and will always be very expensive in dollars per mile driven. Based on what we know today, for the energy growth that the country needs, the only answer (other than fossil fuel) is some form of nuclear."

Anonymous, Sturgeon Bay, Wis.: "Why do we not promote more geothermal processes? I live in a northern climate and just installed geothermal for heating and cooling last year. The initial cost was not prohibitive, and the cooling and heating costs have been dramatically lower than my natural gas costs."

Ed Hart: "I heat with wood and nothing else, and have done so for 26 years. Yes, I'm a polluter, but I'm using a renewable resource and I'm reducing my country's energy dependence. My neighbor sells his forest as wood chips to heat Colgate University, and the trees just keep growing back. I think this is a partial solution that has been ignored. A good portion of our nation is considered a temperate zone. Trees grow well here. Trees used for heat or the production of electricity could reduce our energy dependence and free up available resources to power our autos. I'm not suggesting ravaging our forests, I'm suggesting planting and harvesting wood as a renewable resource to produce energy for the production of electricity. I'm sure we could figure out how to burn it cleaner than I do in my wood stove, and I bet there's enough idled farm land in our nation for growing and harvesting fast-growing trees to actually make an impact on the situation."

Lou Grinzo: "I think we have to look at the ways in which we use vehicles. For most families with more than one car, or businesses that use one or more cars for local driving, the optimal approach is the all-electric vehicle, many of which now can travel 100 miles between charges (like the electric Coopers Frito-Lay recently bought). They work effortlessly with the current infrastructure (unlike hydrogen), and they dovetail beautifully with the push for wind power — e.g., there's no need to build additional plants to generate hydrogen; you can just pump the additional wind-power electricity into the grid. Cellulosic ethanol will very likely be a big deal in the coming years, especially for long-distance vehicles and ethanol-electric hybrids. There are about 5 million E-85-compatible vehicles in the U.S. already (including my Dodge Caravan), and I think people will quickly take to it. I'd be using it now if it were available locally."

George Burr, Ephraim, Wis.: "Ethanol can be a short-term solution to unhook us from our foreign oil dependency. It can be scaled up over several years without major economic disruption. However, switchgrass ethanol and imports will be lower in cost than domestic production from corn. For transportation purposes, plug-in hybrid cars will make economic sense near-term. These are gasoline or ethanol / electric hybrid cars that would have a modest-size battery that could go for about 50 miles on electricity from the power grid. They would be charged at night from base load-generating capacity. Power for the grid would come from any source of non-carbon dioxide-emitting generating means including nuclear, solar, zero-emission coal, geothermal and wind...."

Jay: "Ultimately, true energy independence will emerge from decentralization. Reliance on few sources for the vast majority of energy needs perpetuates reliance and ensures vulnerability in both economic and security terms. The point should be not to devise the next great power grids but to make the grids less relevant. Materials, technologies, designs, and products that significantly reduce traditional energy grid dependence are plentiful today; however, current policies support construction that passes on the often indirect cost of centralized power sources. Communities of buildings that can create comfortable climates independent of external power supplies, and highways filled with vehicles capable of operating on a variety of fuels or motive sources would improve our nation in ways almost too numerous to describe...."

Chris Eldridge, Harrisburg, Pa.: "Working productively right from our own homes is the ultimate solution to our energy needs. The homes we live in already support our activities 75 percent of the day. Expanding their usefulness and functionality to allow us to work at home productively without the need to travel will eliminate not only our need for gas or ethanol, but also 85 percent of the cars we drive. In order for us to expand the home to allow for such options, we must turn to communal homes that allow more people (with more skills) to build a better, more fully featured facility with sub-industrial-scale shops, offices, and even things like retail stores. Self-sufficiency on this scale isn't a bad 'back to basics'-type of thing. Our technology is such that modern shop equipment, solar or wind generators, and home computers can allow a talented group of people to easily provide for themselves: making their own clothes, growing their own food, doing their own automotive repairs, etc. Home security will dramatically improve, and things like day-care centers would be unnecessary."

Carol Young, Hamilton, Mont.: "In your article you say, 'Unfortunately, putting the hydrogen economy into place would require billions of dollars of infrastructure investment.' We already have to put billions of dollars into rebuilding Gulf Coast infrastructure which was largely devoted to the energy industry. Why not use the hurricane damage as an opportunity to begin the conversion?"

Bill Mays: "There are no flexible-fuel cars on the market that get good gas mileage.  There are no cars that can use a variety of fuels like they do in Brazil. The GM Astra can use compressed natural gas, ethanol and gasoline, but is not available in the U.S.  There are very few biodiesel cars available.  There are no hybrids that use flexible fuels. ... I am in the market for a new car and am very confused about what car to get for good gas mileage and fuel availability in a crisis like the hurricanes we had last year. So far I am looking at the Toyota Prius, Honda Civic Hybrid and VW Jetta diesel. I would prefer to have an American car, but don’t see Ford making a flexible-fuel Taurus hybrid that gets 50-plus miles per gallon.  I appreciate your efforts but see no action from the feds.  What will it take to get the feds, the states, the car companies and the fuel companies to do something?  Please let me know when a fuel-efficient, safe, flexible-fuel American car will be available."

Feb. 3, 2006 |
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'The Perfect Corpse'
The Economist: Bayes rulesScotsman: Why we'll never stop seeking the Holy GrailThe New Yorker: Turing's last test

Feb. 2, 2006 |
The science of hibernation: Punxsutawney Phil was roused from hibernation and saw his shadow this morning — and in the grand tradition of Groundhog Day, that means we're in for six more weeks of winter.

But what if an extra shot of hormones could keep groundhogs — or people — in a state of torpor for a day or so? That's probably not an effective strategy for hastening spring's arrival, but it could conceivably improve the survival rates for major surgery or even lay the groundwork for long-duration space trips. (For humans, that is. Not groundhogs.)

Recently published research has shed new light on the hormonal pathways that put mice into suspended animation, and the scientists behind the study say their findings could someday be applied to humans as well.

"It's thought that hibernation was once a shared characteristic among all mammals, and then we humans lost the ability to hibernate — but it still might be in our genes," said Williams College biologist Steven Swoap, one of the authors of the study in the Jan. 4 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.

In fact, he said, there is anecdotal evidence that humans are still capable of dramatically lowering their metabolic rate in times of stress — for example, after they're dunked in an ice-cold pond or buried in a snowdrift.

Last year, a different team of researchers said they could induce suspended animation in mice by having them breathe air laced with hydrogen sulfide. This year's report focuses on a different strategy. It all started with Swoap's study of mice that lack the genetic machinery to make norepinephrine and epinephrine, two neurotransmitter hormones that play a role in the body's "fight-or-flight" response to stress.

The researchers found that such mice were unable to go into hibernation when food became scarce and temperatures became cool, the way normal mice can. Restoring the neurotransmitter hormones in the brain made no difference — but when the hormones were administered to the peripheral nervous system, the mice at last gained the ability to hibernate.

"It's the action of those two hormones on white fat, of all things, that generates the signal for an animal to enter a hibernation state," Swoap told me.

The signals from the fat lower levels of leptin, an important hormone that has been linked to metabolism and weight loss. "When the animals are stressed for lack of food, leptin levels plummet, they go very low in the blood, and then that becomes the signal for animals to enter into torpor," Swoap said. Instead of getting hungry, hibernating animals bring down their metabolic rate and their body temperature.

Another researcher behind the study, Harvard University's Ross Smith, said the later steps in the metabolic process still had to be studied. "We know that this adrenaline is needed to interact with a receptor in fat, but we don't know what happens next," he told me.

Smith said the most useful application of their findings would be to lower the metabolic rate of patients during surgery, which would in turn reduce the risk of organ damage. "If you could bring down the metabolism during big surgeries like heart transplants, you'd have increased survival," he said.

There's even a science-fiction angle to the research. "If we could lower people's metabolism indefinitely, we could realize that scientific dream of suspended animation ... if we could do it safely," Smith said. Believe it or not, European researchers are already looking into the final-frontier possibilities.

In addition to Swoap and Smith, the authors of the Journal of Neuroscience study include Margaret Gutilla of Williams College; and L. Cameron Liles and David Weinshenker of the Emory University School of Medicine. Smith was at Williams College when the study was conducted.

Feb. 2, 2006 |
Fish story, continued: In the latest chapter of the "smallest fish" saga, researcher Maurice Kottelat explains why his peat swamp fish should still hold the title — even though another fish expert, Ted Pietsch, has found mature male anglerfish that are smaller. Basically, Kottelat says he is talking about the smallest fish species rather than the smallest fish specimen. Because the female of Pietsch's species is much larger than the male, "it is not a miniature species," Kottelat says in an e-mail relayed by Singapore's Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research. OK, does that mean Kottelat's Paedocypris progenetica is really, truly the smallest fish species? Maybe ... or maybe not. Muton reports that the fish might have already gone extinct. (Tip o' the Log to Pharyngula's P.Z. Myers.)

Feb. 2, 2006 |
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Nature: Rats show off 'stereo smell'
Nat'l Geo.: Did climate change trigger human evolution?NASA: The mysterious smell of moondustThe Chronicle Review: The moral status of animals

Feb. 1, 2006 |
The ethanol economy: "Biofuels" is the energy buzzword of the week in the wake of President Bush's State of the Union speech, just as "hydrogen" was after his 2003 speech. The newly announced Advanced Energy Initiative gives a particularly strong push to ethanol, the alcohol fuel that is typically extracted from corn and blended with gasoline for use in your car's tank.

Bush proposed budgeting $150 million for ethanol research in the next fiscal year, aimed at perfecting processes for converting waste fiber such as cornstalks, wood chips and switchgrass into fuel. "Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years," he said.

Ethanol certainly seems to be the current darling of energy policy, and not just because of Bush's initiative. For example, in the March issue of The American Enterprise, rocket scientist Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, calls for "taking the world off the petroleum standard and putting it on the alcohol standard" by boosting ethanol and methanol fuels. And last week, energy researchers gave a qualified endorsement for ethanol. But just as in the case of the hydrogen economy, there are downsides as well as upsides.

Reducing America's dependence on Middle East petroleum is certainly a big upside: Ethanol production has mushroomed over the past 25 years, from 75 million gallons in 1980 to 4 billion gallons last year. "Any car in the United States today can run on a 10 percent [ethanol] blend, and most do," Reid Detchon, executive director of the Washington-based Energy Future Coalition, told me today.

Costwise, the picture for ethanol is looking better as the picture for oil looks worse. Detchon cited a 2000 study (PDF file) that estimated the cost of making a gallon of ethanol from cornstarch at about $1. Right now, that compares favorably with the production cost for a gallon of gasoline, particularly after the run-up in oil prices.

"With the price of oil high and the price of corn low, investors are getting very handsome returns," Detchon said. But you can use only so much of the corn supply to produce ethanol, and it's not likely you could produce more than 10 to 15 billion gallons of corn-based fuel annually, he said.

To get to the levels Bush is talking about — say, 50 billion gallons a year — you need to have a profitable process for converting waste fiber into ethanol. Some companies, such as Canada-based Iogen Corp., are able to do that on a small scale, but Bush's initiative is aimed at creating incentives for scaling up the process.

"What we need to do as a matter of public policy is to not focus down on a single technology, but to support the construction of eight or 10 or 12 of these facilities on a commercial scale, using different technologies, different processes, different materials," Detchon said. "We ought to have a competitive solicitation for producing ethanol on a commercial scale."

Another piece of the puzzle is to promote automobiles that can burn more ethanol-rich blends of fuel. The flexible-fuel vehicle initiative is aimed at doing just that, by alerting consumers to cars that will work just fine on up to 85 percent ethanol. "This will get driven not just from Washington, but also from Detroit," Detchon said. The National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition has more information about FFVs.

As America gets more involved in the ethanol economy, we're likely to come up against the issue of foreign imports once again. Brazil, for example, is already into biofuels in a big way, with 20 percent or more of the country's transport fuel supply coming from sugar-cane ethanol. If it weren't for high U.S. tariffs, we might already be fueling more of our cars with cheap Brazilian ethanol.

Farmers and alternative-fuel backers "don't want to see a lot of cheap Brazilian ethanol come in and threaten their investment," Detchon said, but "if the market can be developed quickly and flexibly enough, there might be room for both Brazilian and U.S. ethanol."

The Brazilian experience also highlights some downsides: Activists are already concerned about the human cost of the country's ethanol boom, and there's an environmental cost to ethanol as well.

"In terms of air pollution, it's no better than gasoline fuel," said Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University engineering professor who reported last year that wind energy plus hydrogen would be the best solution for America's energy woes. He said burning ethanol produced such pollutants as peroxyacetylnitrates, "one of the most potent eye irritants in smog," as well as the ozone-producing chemical acetaldehyde.

Ethanol's environmental impact is the subject of a years-long debate, but there's no question that it's still a carbon-based fuel — unlike, say, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal or solar power. Last week's study in Science acknowledged that current ethanol-based technologies "have greenhouse-gas emissions similar to those of gasoline."

"The bottom line is that it's not beneficial in terms of air pollution, and if it is beneficial in terms of climate change, it's very marginal. ... There really is only one way to address the climate problem, and that would be with large-scale wind energy," Jacobson said. "You can do it with solar to some extent, but it's three or four times more expensive."

In Jacobson's vision of the future, hydrogen fuel comes into play as a carrier of energy, made available with the aid of wind-generated electricity. "You'd want to first use wind for electric power, then you'd want to use hydrogen," he said. "The nice thing about wind-hydrogen is that it's more efficient than the internal combustion engine."

Unfortunately, putting the hydrogen economy into place would require billions of dollars of infrastructure investment, as Jacobson and his colleagues acknowledged last year. That makes the ethanol economy an easier political sell. But Detchon said America's energy future shouldn't be seen as an either/or proposition.

"It's certainly true that we will have to push many different alternative sources of energy as hard as we can, both to reduce our oil imports and also reduce emissions," he said. "So certainly we'll need all the wind energy we can produce, all the ethanol we can produce, all the solar panels we can install. ... This can be a very important element in our energy policy if we get serious about it."

So here's the part where I invite you to weigh in with your opinions on the new energy initiatives as well as alternate visions of our alternative-energy future. Let me know what you think, just like you did last year, and I'll pass along a selection of the e-mail.

Feb. 1, 2006 |
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web: Shock therapy, version 2.0
Scientific American: 10 or 11 dimensions? Why not 42?BBC: Inventor develops 'artificial gills'
Pharyngula: President panders to anti-manimal lobby!

Feb. 1, 2006 |
Mapping microfossils: Scientists say they have developed a technique to map the structure and chemistry of microscopic fossils embedded in rock — without touching the fossils themselves. The method could be applied to the search for traces of life in Martian rocks brought back to Earth.

The 3-D images are produced using two tools known as confocal laser scanning microscopy and Raman spectroscopy, researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles report in the January issue of the journal Astrobiology. The scientists demonstrated the technique using microscopic fossils that date back 650 million years and 850 million years, encased within thin slices of rock.

"It's astounding to see an organically preserved, microscopic fossil inside a rock, and see these microscopic fossils in three dimensions," paleobiologist J. William Schopf said in Tuesday's news release. "It's very difficult to get any insight about the biochemistry of organisms that lived nearly a billion years ago, and this gives it to you."

Theoretically, astrobiologists could use the technique to probe structures within Martian rocks for organic structures, such as cell walls.

The first step is to prepare the sample by slicing the rock into sections thin enough for light to shine through — somewhat like a stained-glass window effect, with microscopic samples trapped inside the window pane. Then the researchers focus laser light on the fossils visible inside the translucent rock.

"If you can’t see through the rock, you can still get a signal," Schopf told me today. "But the reason you generally don’t do that is because you don’t know what's down there."

Confocal microscopy involves focusing the beam on the fossil to make the organic walls fluoresce, allowing them to be viewed in three dimensions. Raman spectroscopy uses the beam for a different purpose: The way the light is scattered and absorbed can reveal the chemical composition of the sample.

The two methods can be combined to produce a computer-generated image of the fossil, revealing its chemical complexity.

"We can look underneath the fossil, see it from the top, from the sides and rotate it around; we couldn't do that with any other technique, but now we can because of confocal laser scanning microscopy," Schopf said. "In addition, even though the fossils are exceedingly tiny, the images are sharp and crisp. So we can see how the fossils have degraded over millions of yeas and learn what are the real biological features and what has changed over time."

To fine-tune the method, Schopf and his co-authors — Abhishek Tripathi, Andrew Czaja and Anatoliy Kudryavtsev — mapped the structures of a 650-million-year-old fossil cyanobacterium from Kazakhstan and an even older microscopic bit of ancient "pond scum" from Australia. They also successfully conducted a chemical analysis of the fossils, all without removing them from the rock.

"I have wanted to do this for 40 years, but there wasn't any way to do so before," said Schopf, who is director of UCLA's Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life.

Astrobiologists are still working on a precise definition of what distinguishes life from non-biological processes. The life-detection issue, as well as procedures to guard against earthly contamination, will have to be sorted out to avoid the kind of controversy that has surrounded the nanofossils within the Mars meteorite ALH 84001.

Schopf said his technique probably couldn't be used to analyze nanofossils, because the lengths involved — tens of nanometers — are below the finest resolution of his instruments. "These technologies are just wonderful in terms of their resolution, but they're not perfect," he said.

However, if there are any Martian microbes close to the size of typical earthly organisms, Schopf's technique could well come into play. Samples suitable for testing could be brought back from the Red Planet by unmanned probes within the next decade or so.

Schopf said the analysis could even be done by robotic geologists right on Mars, assuming that they're capable of preparing samples and identifying the right targets for study. "If you're going to look for little microorganisms, you ought to see them before you analyze them," he observed. "That could be done robotically. It's not easy, but it could be done."

Jan. 31, 2006 |
Three years after Columbia: NASA wraps up its annual remembrances of tragedies past on Wednesday with the third anniversary of the shuttle Columbia's breakup. Over the past week, we've looked at how Columbia's loss has affected NASA's thinking about the retirement of the shuttle fleet and the designs for the next-generation Crew Exploration Vehicle, or CEV. That look-ahead angle will likely get more prominence over the next week, when NASA's budget for the next fiscal year is unveiled.

In the last few days, there's been more and more buzz about how NASA might have to shift its moon plans to fit within tighter budgets, slipping back into business as usual. Others have continued the debate over whether and where the shuttle program went wrong, and what lessons should be learned from the program. Dwayne A. Day, a space writer and historian who served as an investigator for the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, revisited the topic in an e-mail exchange:

"We’ll retire the shuttle, get the CEV a little late, and cancel the lunar plans. That will just kick the can down the road until the middle of next decade when a future presidential commission will have to decide what next — retire space station, build another one, or go to the moon? "... I think it’s too simplistic to label shuttle a 'mistake' because we’ve now decided to go the capsule route again.  First, you have to "All of this is not to say that shuttle did not include many mistakes.  Not including an escape system was a mistake.  And people told, and believed, lies about the efficiencies and the payload models for the shuttle.  Coupling humans with cargo may have been a mistake, but it really only followed from the other assumptions (after all, if the vehicle is going to be cheap and reliable, then why not combine people and cargo?)."

If we're going back to the Apollo-style capsule route, should the spaceship be called Apollo as well? Last week I said that sounded like an intriguing idea, and I'm not the only one. Here's another sampling of feedback on the spaceship-naming game:

Arthur Boardman, Tucson, Ariz.: "The author's idea of Apollo Mark II was a good idea. My thought before I read his idea was just simply Apollo II. This way, there would be a way to distinguish the difference between the new craft and the past Apollo crafts. It's exciting to learn that NASA is planning to go back out to explore again. I was on the recovery ship (USS Ticonderoga) for the Apollo 17 mission. I was disappointed to find out that that was the last of the moon missions. But at the same time, I was proud to be able to say that I had participated in a historical event, even though it was a very small part. I was also allowed to handle some of the moon rocks right after they were taken out of the spacecraft. What a thrill: to hold a piece of the moon in my hands."W. Steigerwald, Houston: "After rewatching [the movie about] one of NASA's finest hours, 'Apollo 13,' I would suggest, as others: Yes, name the new CEV Apollo, reminding us of us just how great our space program was and still is. Just think about it. On May 25, 1961, John Kennedy challenged America to go to the moon before the decade was over ... and yet in the second half of 1969, despite setbacks and tragedy, NASA placed two crews on the moon's surface before the decade was out. And why not, just as before, call the lunar lander the LEM? Or call the lunar lander 'The Eagle' in memory of the Apollo 11 lunar lander, or am out of touch and not politically correct?"Jack Ward, Lewisville, Ind.: "How about Command Module Grissom? Or the Lunar Module Chaffee? Or Lunar Base McAuliffe? I do like the mythological names as well, but why not honor those who have gone before? I'd like to see the Mars explorers travel aboard the Komarov, and land in the Mars Landing Module White."Gary Frisard, Slidell, La.: "I like the idea of naming the whole thing the 'Clipper' series after the Pan Am Clippers that mapped out the modern air transport routes, paying homage to the thousands of aviation pioneers who inspired the human race to exploration and travel, with the ability to attach those of historic preportions to the name. How about the 'Lindbergh Clipper' starting the series, as he was the first man to cross a vastness that no one thought possible. I think it would be a great marriage of the not-so-distant past with a opportunity to pay tribute to so many heroes of the modern era — Scott, Glenn, Carpenter, et al."

I like the "Clipper" name as well, particularly because NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has compared spaceships to "clipper ships" in the past. Unfortunately, it looks as if the Russians have already staked their claim to that name.

Thomas Shelton: "I think everyone will agree with me when I say we should name this ship Enterprise. 'The Big E' during World War II, the first nuclear-powered carrier, the first space shuttle, and need I mention the most famous science fiction starship ever. Trekkers from around the country wrote to the president to name the first shuttle Enterprise. I say we do it again."Lance Kovel, Salt Lake City: "Based on the reports surrounding the planning and development of the mission, I think the CEV should be called 'Tight Wad Probe I,' since most of the articles concerning it deal with budgetary constraints and have very little to do with science. I wonder if they have considered accepting a bid from the Estes Rocket Corporation for the launch vehicle? Other than a few ants and mice that have been killed over the years in Estes Rocket 'accidents,' their safety record is perfect; and they are relatively cheap."Alan Ritchie: North Vernon, Ind. "How about Taxpayer Rip-Off 1, 2 and 3 ... or spacecraft that eat up money needed for the homeless and hungry of this country? I love and am intrigued by space exploration and travel, but this country needs to take care of immediate problems before spending billions on trying to get to another planet that we will never inhabit anyway."

Finally, a couple of folks referred to the X-33, one of NASA's unsuccessful efforts to get a next-generation, reusable, single-stage-to-orbit spaceship off the ground:

Kieron McKindle: "I think this is all great and wonderful, as anything which returns us to the moon ASAP is fine by me. But, I keep wondering what happened to the X-33? With its three-stage jet/ramjet/scramjet engine design — the third stage which has recently been proven in the X-43 tests — and the fact that a prototype already exists, I just wonder why all that developmental money was spent and we have virtually nothing to show for it. Let's push for the completion of the X-33 program for the future."Kurt Kolanko: "...The reason for the failure of the X-33 was that the fuel tanks for the vehicle cracked upon testing — not because the design was flawed, but because the tanks were made of aluminum instead of the planned-for polycarbon material.  To make the fuel tanks as designed would mean cost overruns in the hundreds of millions of dollars (as I recall, certainly it was far less than a billion).  This leads me to my point: We should return to Apollo-era spending (1 percent of the federal budget), and at least finish the X-33 and test-fly it (and many other designs sitting in the desert and collecting dust).  The aerospike engine (for example) of the X-33 is a proven technology which would cut fuel consumption and thus cost per launch drastically ... and yet I don't see it on either the CEV or the heavy-lift cargo launcher design proposals.  While I understand the concept being proposed is one of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it,' it seems damned odd to be relying on 40-year-old technology without the (relatively speaking) minimal costs involved in testing upgrades and single-stage-to-orbit vehicles...."Challenger, Columbia and Apollo 1 shouldn't teach us to go back to square one, they should teach us to carefully experiment and advance.  Otherwise, the Chinese, the Russians or someone else will own the moon.  And if you own the moon, you own the earth (read Heinlein or any other competent ballistician if you don't believe me).  I'm not being melodramatic; that's what's at stake."

It's certainly worth noting that some of the ventures involved in the suborbital space race appear to be designing vertical-takeoff spaceships that have a bit of the look and feel of the X-33 or the Delta Clipper, another single-stage test craft. Armadillo Aerospace, TGV Rockets and Blue Origin come to mind. Might private ventures succeed where NASA failed? What do you think?

Jan. 31, 2006 |
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Science News: Mother-of-pearl on ice
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): How to listen for the sound of plutonium MythBusters vs. Star Wars (via Slashdot)
PhysOrg: South Pole could test string theory

Jan. 30, 2006 |
Big flap over smallest fish: Last week’s news about the 0.3-inch-long “smallest fish” caused a worldwide stir … and a bit of harrumphing from the University of Washington, where experts say they have identified a 0.2-inch-long mature male fish.

But if you judge the mature males of the species Photocorynus spiniceps to be the world’s truly smallest fish, you might have to add an asterisk to the record: In a vivid case of sexual dimorphism, the females grow to be a whopping 1.8 inches long.

Even Ted Pietsch, the the University of Washington fish expert behind the harrumphing, says there's no sense in quibbling over the "smallest" title: "There are always difficulties in talking about the smallest — would that be length, volume or weight — the debate goes round and round," Pietsch says in today's news release. The bottom line is that Mother Nature can pack an amazing amount of apparatus into an incredibly small, and sometimes bizarre, package.

Here's how the two contenders size up:

  • As reported last week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, mature females of Paedocypris progenetica, a member of the carp family, grow to 7.9 millimeters (0.31 inches). The males have enlarged pelvic fins and exceptionally large muscles that may be used to grasp the females during copulation. The fish live in Indonesian peat swamps that are at least 100 times more acidic than rainwater.
  • In the September issue of Ichthyological Research, Pietsch described Photocorynus spiniceps, a variety of deep-sea anglerfish collected in the Philippines. The mature males grow to sizes of 6.2 to 7.4 millimeters (0.24 to 0.29 inches), while the females are about 46 millimeters long (1.8 inches). The males bite onto the sides, backs or bellies of a female, fusing with her for the rest of their lives and creating an all-in-one reproductive package. Up to eight males might be permanently attached to one female.

Pietsch's peewees are smaller by another measure, having 18 vertebrae in comparison with the 33 to 35 vertebrae for Paedocypris progenetica. To size up the critters for yourself, check out Pietsch's research paper as well as the article from the Proceedings (freely available for a limited time). You can find out still more about Paedocypris progenetica from Singapore's Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research.

Today, Pietsch told me one of the researchers behind the paper in the Proceedings, Maurice Kottelat, now acknowledges that Pietsch's fish is smaller. So why wasn't Kottelat aware of that last week? "Well, he's a freshwater guy, and I'm a marine guy," Pietsch said. As a result, Kottelat and Pietsch distinguish their discoveries as the "smallest freshwater vertebrate" and the "smallest marine vertebrate" — but Pietsch knows that his marine specimen is really the tiniest.

Thankfully, this case of peewee envy won't cause the scientists to cross sword ... fish. "We're all good ol' buddies," Pietsch said with a laugh. "We've known each other for 30 years."

Jan. 30, 2006 |
Reality checks on the scientific Web:
RLV and Space Transport News: Lessons to learn
The Space Review: Asking the tough Star-watching astronomers had it wrongNature: Another Asian biotech controversy

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