Monday, September 8, 2008

The Sun Will Eventually Engulf Earth--Maybe

By David Appell

Overheated: Researchers debate whether Earth will be swallowed up by the sun as it expands to its red giant state billions of years from now.
Lynette Cook Photo Researchers, Inc.

The future looks bright—maybe too bright. The sun is slowly expanding and brightening, and over the next few billion years it will eventually desiccate Earth, leaving it hot, brown and uninhabitable. About 7.6 billion years from now, the sun will reach its maximum size as a red giant: its surface will extend beyond Earth’s orbit today by 20 percent and will shine 3,000 times brighter. In its final stage, the sun will collapse into a white dwarf.

Although scientists agree on the sun’s future, they disagree about what will happen to Earth. Since 1924, when British mathematician James Jeans first considered Earth’s fate during the sun’s red giant phase, a bevy of scientists have reached oscillating conclusions. In some scenarios, our planet escapes vaporization; in the latest analyses, however, it does not.

The answer is not straightforward, because although the sun will expand beyond Earth’s orbit, or one astronomical unit (AU), it will lose mass along the way. As a result, Earth should drift outward as the gravitational tug lessens over time. (At its maximum radius of 1.2 AU, the sun will have lost about one third of its mass, compared with its current heft.) In this way, Earth could escape solar envelopment.

But other factors complicate the analysis. Drag on the planet from the sun’s outermost, tenuous layers will cause Earth to drift inward. Smaller forces from the other planets—all in turn reacting to the same reducing, expanding sun—are even more difficult to account for completely.

Earlier this year two teams reported different kinds of calculations indicating that Earth will be swallowed up by the sun. In a calculation that would thrill any college junior studying classical mechanics, Lorenzo Iorio of Italy’s National Institute of Nuclear Physics used perturbation theory. It simplifies analyses by dropping relatively small factors, thereby making complex equations of motions that describe the interactions between the sun and Earth mathematically manageable. Assuming that the sun’s yearly mass loss (currently about one part in 100 trillion) remains small for the duration of its evolution to the red giant phase, Iorio calculates that Earth will move outward at about three millimeters a year, or only 0.0002 AU by the sun’s red giant phase. But at that point the sun will balloon up, in only a million years, to 1.2 AU in radius, thus vaporizing Earth.

Iorio’s paper, submitted to Astrophysics and Space Science, has not yet been peer-reviewed. Several scientists question whether quantities that Iorio assumes are small will indeed remain small throughout the sun’s evolution.

Even if Iorio got his number crunching wrong, he may have the right answer. In an analysis published in the May Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Klaus-Peter Schröder of the University of Guanajuato in Mexico and Robert Smith of the University of Sussex in England also conclude that Earth is doomed, by using more exact solar models and by considering tidal interactions. As the sun loses mass and expands, its rotation rate must also slow down—physics students learn this relation as the conservation of angular momentum. The slowed rotation causes a tidal bulge on the sun’s surface. The gravity exerted by this bulge pulls Earth inward. With such a consideration, the researchers find that any planet with a present-day orbital radius of less than 1.15 AU will ultimately perish.

Could Earth be saved if someone is still left at home? In a bold piece of astronomical engineering, Don Korycansky of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and his colleagues have proposed nudging Earth with a large asteroid arranged to pass nearby periodically. It could take one billion years to move our planet out to somewhere safe, like the orbit of Mars. Our moon, though, might have to be left behind, and any miscalculation could mean extinction. Needless to say, more study is required.

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Forecasting The Fate Of Mysteries

Our modern answer to the Pyramids
Frank Wilczek, MIT, Nobel laureate (2004)
As a project, it's magnificent—i like to say it's our civilization's answer to the Pyramids of Egypt, but much better because it's driven by curiosity rather than superstition, and built on collaboration, not command. The scale isn't just vanity—everything has to be as big as it is. But it's not only big in physical size; it's extremely sophisticated, extremely delicate. It's probably the most complex thing we've ever done—we being humanity.

We have now a very well-established, highly tested, highly rewarded-with-Nobel-Prizes theory of the weak interaction that's based on a concept that's never been directly proved. The concept is that the universe is a kind of cosmic superconductor, not for electricity but for weak charges: what appears as empty space is anything but empty. Another way of saying that is we're living in a kind of ocean, surrounded by—something. But we've never isolated a water molecule; we don't know what the ocean consists of. The LHC [the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva] will discover what that is. That's the minimal achievement.

But I expect much more. We have a description of the world that's potentially magnificent and beautiful—in part—but has pieces missing. We have four fundamental forces—strong, weak, electromagnetic and gravity—and lovely ideas for how to tie them together. And when you try to follow that inspiration out, you find a lot of things work out very nicely, but it doesn't really work in detail, unless you expand the equation to include more stuff. Some of that stuff should be within the range of the LHC. So ideas about unification—that go by the name of supersymmetry—are really in play. We'll have a much more unified description of the world than we've had before, many more particles to play with [whose] properties will be a window into a vast new physics—a whole new world of fundamental behavior.

If you just take the particles we have and extrapolate their known behavior, you run into contradictions—you start to contradict basic principles of quantum mechanics or common sense. There has to be a deviation of some kind from the laws we have at present when you go up to high energy: if there's not a new particle, then we'll need different laws. That would be maybe even more profound than finding new particles—if we have to give up quantum mechanics or change what we mean by the laws. So finding new particles is much more conservative than the alternative. We'd have to unlearn a lot of what we know.

There will be less room for religion
Steven Weinberg, University of Texas, Nobel laureate (1979)
As science explains more and more, there is less and less need for religious explanations. Originally, in the history of human beings, everything was mysterious. Fire, rain, birth, death—all seemed to require the action of some kind of divine being. As time has passed, we have explained more and more in a purely naturalistic way. This doesn't contradict religion, but it does takes away one of the original motivations for religion.

If we put together something like a final theory in which all the forces and the particles are explained, and that theory also throws light on the origin of the big bang and gives us a consistent picture of cosmology, there will be a little less for religion to explain. But religion has evolved along with science. It is something created by human beings, and as human beings learn more and more, their religion changes. Today, especially in the more established religious sects in the West, they've learned to stop trying to explain nature religiously and leave that to science.

The more we learn about the universe, the fewer signs we see of an intelligent designer. Isaac Newton thought that an explanation of how the sun shone would have to be made in terms of the action of God. Now we know that the sun shines because of the heat produced by the conversion of hydrogen into helium in its core. People who expect to find evidence of divine action in nature, in the origin of the universe or in the laws that govern matter are probably going to be disappointed.

What will be completely satisfying will be to show that there was only one kind of nature that was logically possible and derive the laws of nature in the same way that we derived the principles of arithmetic. I don't think that will be possible, because we can already imagine logically consistent laws of nature that don't quite describe the world we see. We will always be somewhat disappointed. But people who believe in God have the same problem. They will never be able to understand why the God that they believe in is that way and not some other way. All human beings, whether religious or not, are caught in a tragic situation of never fully being able to understand the world we are in.

I don't believe in God, but I don't make a religion out of not believing in God. It is logically possible that something could be discovered that will make me change my mind, and it will be interesting to see if that happens. But I don't expect it. It is always possible that we will discover something in nature that cannot be explained in the naturalistic way that we've gotten used to in science and that will really require divine intervention. That hasn't happened. I don't know of any religious people who say that the breaking of the symmetry between the weak and the electromagnetic interactions requires divine intervention. Discovering the Higgs boson, or confirming the theory of electroweak symmetry breaking, is not going to upset people's religion.

Possible evidence of a 4th dimension
Brian Greene, Columbia University, string theorist
The one insight that we are most confident or hopeful about is supersymmetry. It's a little complex to describe in detail, but I can describe an implication: for every known particle species in the world—electrons, quarks and so on—we should see a partner particle that is as yet undiscovered. We find this possibility exciting because supersymmetry is an intrinsic quality of string theory. If you discover supersymmetry, it doesn't prove string theory right, but it does prove one of its central attributes to be right.

What Einstein did with general relativity, in terms of its role in theoretical physics, is give us an understanding of certain symmetries or qualities of space and time. Supersymmetry in essence is taking that to the next level. If supersymmetry is right, it's telling us that space and time have qualities that Einstein couldn't have dreamed of but naturally fit into the same progression that he started. There are other things beyond supersymmetry that again would tie into Einstein in a deep way that could also be found.

The LHC could provide evidence for more than three dimensions of space. One of the ways that we have formulated string theory in the last five or 10 years suggests that the following might happen at the LHC. What happens there is you slam one proton against another proton traveling in opposite directions near the speed of light. And there are literally trillions of protons going around the LHC at something like 11,000 times a second. And then you have these collisions. What might happen is there will be some debris created in the collision that gets ejected out of our three dimensions of space into a higher dimensional space, dimensions that we don't have direct access to. How would you notice that? If some debris gets rejected, it will carry some energy with it, which means that if you measure the energy just before the protons collide and you measure what's left over just after, you should have a little less at the end than you had at the beginning. That would be indirect evidence that energy had been lost to more dimensions.

[The follow up to the LHC is] already being planned: the International Linear Collider. You can think about the LHC as a very powerful microscope, but it's likely to reveal just the gross features of the new physics. The ILC is a machine of a different design that has the capacity to then take the gross road map that the LHC can provide and begin to really go down the little alleyways and enchanting avenues, to really explore the terrain with the kind of detail and precision that the LHC likely can't. Let's say some new particles are discovered at the LHC. The ILC would have the capacity to study the very fine detailed properties of those particles, to really produce them copiously and understand with great precision their mass, election charge, interactions, things of that sort, which the LHC may be able to roughly say. The ILC is one that really can get in there and describe the properties with fantastic precision.

No, it won ' t swallow up the Earth
Stephen Hawking , Cambridge University, mathematician
The large Hadron Collider will allow us to study particle collisions at energies three times greater than previous particle accelerators. We can guess at what this will reveal, but our experience has been that when we open up a new range of observations, we often find what we had not expected. That is when physics becomes really exciting, because we are learning something new about the universe.

The LHC is part of an international effort to unlock the secrets of the universe. It cost about $10 billion over four years, which sounds a lot, but which is only 0.005 percent of the world gross domestic product for that period. Can't we afford two hundredths of a percent to understand the universe?

And it is absolutely safe. There has been a scare story that it might create a tiny black hole that would swallow up the Earth. But if the collisions in the LHC produced a micro black hole, and this is unlikely, it would just evaporate away again, producing a characteristic pattern of particles. Collisions at these and greater energies occur millions of times a day in the Earth's atmosphere, and nothing terrible happens. The world will not come to an end when the LHC turns on. The LHC is feeble compared with what goes on in the universe. If a disaster was going to happen, it would have happened already.

Pointing to a future path for physics
Alan Guth, MIT, cosmologist
What we're trying to understand is the first fraction of a second of the history of the universe, and how the evolution that took place then put the universe on the path to become what it is today. Inflationary theory is a twist on the conventional big-bang picture. What changes is our understanding of the history of the universe for a very short period during the first minute. The theory modifies the evolution to include a brief period during which gravity is turned on its head and becomes repulsive instead of attractive. If inflation is right, this short period of repulsive gravity is the actual bang of the big bang, in the sense that it is what propelled the universe into its enormous expansion, which we're still seeing today.

I think many physicists, including me, feel that the direction of physics in the coming years is very uncertain. I'm talking about the actual science, not just the funding. The key shocker for many of us was the discovery about 10 years ago that the universe is accelerating. It was not expected theoretically, at least not by most of us, and it is very hard to understand in the context of the theories that we have been using all these years. The LHC is likely to play a major role in telling us the direction in which we should be moving.

Think of it like the Hubble telescope
Edward Witten, Institute for Advanced Study, string theorist
There's a chance that something would be discovered that wouldn't fit well with any of our ideas. The chance of finding higher dimensions—it's possible, but just barely possible. If everything is lined up exactly right, it's conceivable the LHC could do that. Energy would seem to disappear because the idea is that, when particles have a sufficiently high energy, they can escape into a higher dimensional world. If it's a long shot to get direct evidence for extra dimensions, it's even more of a long shot to get a clear black-hole signature at the LHC.

What the LHC really does is explore the energies at which the nature of the weak interactions can be understood. The important forces of nature are gravity, the nuclear force—also called the strong interactions—electromagnetism and weak interactions, which is probably the least familiar force to those who aren't physicists, responsible for certain forms of atomic radioactivity. The weak interactions are a big piece of the puzzle. They're the least understood because they're so weak. It's very mysterious.

We've already discovered the W and Z particles, which are two important ingredients in weak interactions. Putting together what we already know, we know the energy scale at which the weak-interaction symmetry is broken. And it's definitely in reach of the LHC. In fact, the LHC goes beyond that. That's the big question which I'm sure the LHC will answer.

You should think of the LHC as being something like the Hubble space telescope: it's built to explore the universe and understand it better.

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Viral manoeuvres revealed by surveillance system

Virologists have a new weapon in the war against viruses – a way to tag and track individual viruses that are too small to be viewed with light microscopes.

To infect a cell, viruses have to subvert the cell's proteins in order to survive and replicate inside. But working out exactly how the viruses do that is difficult because they are so small. Most are 10 to 300 nanometres across.

Pin Wang and colleagues at the University of Southern California have come up with a way to track individual viruses. "That is a powerful tool for investigating viral infection routes," he told New Scientist.

Until now only one group of viruses – the lentiviruses, which include HIV – could be tracked as they moved through a cell. In 2002, Thomas Hope and colleagues at the University of Illinois tagged HIV-1 with a fluorescent protein called GFP, revealing that it travels through cells by hitching a ride on the protein struts that make up their "skeleton".

Track and trace

Wang's team says that quantum dots, a kind of nanoscale crystal, can track a larger variety of viruses.

Quantum dots are just a few nanometres in diameter, making them subject to quantum effects that make them shine very brightly for hours after being hit with laser light. That makes them perfect for tagging tiny viruses.

Wang's team labelled HIV-1 viruses by attaching them to molecules of biotin (vitamin B7), which in turn connects to a protein coated onto the quantum dots.

To check this method didn't affect the quantum dots' shine or the way viruses behave, the team simultaneously tracked HIV-1 particles using quantum dots, and GFP.

They found that the viruses labelled with quantum dots infected cells as readily as unlabelled viruses.

None shall escape

Wang says that quantum dots could be used to track a much wider range of viruses, including those that can't be followed using GFP.

"We believe that many kinds of enveloped viruses could be labelled by our method," he says.

Although some viruses can be labelled using dye molecules, the dyes are quickly bleached by the powerful light of microscopes and so the viruses can't be tracked for any length of time. By contrast, quantum dots retain their brightness for several hours.

"Some studies show that quantum dot-labelled proteins could be detected in living cells even after 48 hours," Wang adds.

Maxime Dahan at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris is impressed with the study.

"It unquestionably represents a significant result in terms of using quantum dots as virus markers," he says. "It holds great promise to unravel the infection pathway in a detailed manner."

Journal reference: ACS Nano, DOI: 10.1021/nn8002136

Nanotechnology - Follow the emergence of a new technology in our continuously updated special report.

Quantum World - Learn more about a weird world in our comprehensive special report.

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Anything Into Oil

by Brad Lemley, Photography by Dean Kaufman

The thermal conversion plant turns turkey offal into low-sulfur oil that is carted off by three tanker trucks daily.

The smell is a mélange of midsummer corpse with fried-liver overtones and a distinct fecal note. It comes from the worst stuff in the world—turkey slaughterhouse waste. Rotting heads, gnarled feet, slimy intestines, and lungs swollen with putrid gases have been trucked here from a local Butterball packager and dumped into an 80-foot-long hopper with a sickening glorp. In about 20 minutes, the awful mess disappears into the workings of the thermal conversion process plant in Carthage, Missouri.

Two hours later a much cleaner truck—an oil carrier—pulls up to the other end of the plant, and the driver attaches a hose to the truck's intake valve. One hundred fifty barrels of fuel oil, worth $12,600 wholesale, gush into the truck, headed for an oil company that will blend it with heavier fossil-fuel oils to upgrade the stock. Three tanker trucks arrive here on peak production days, loading up with 500 barrels of oil made from 270 tons of turkey guts and 20 tons of pig fat. Most of what cannot be converted into fuel oil becomes high-grade fertilizer; the rest is water clean enough to discharge into a municipal wastewater system.

For Brian Appel—and, maybe, for an energy-hungry world—it's a dream come true, better than turning straw into gold. The thermal conversion process can take material more plentiful and troublesome than straw—slaughterhouse waste, municipal sewage, old tires, mixed plastics, virtually all the wretched detritus of modern life—and make it something the world needs much more than gold: high-quality oil.

Appel, chairman and CEO of Changing World Technologies, has prodded, pushed, and sometimes bulldozed his way toward this goal for nearly a decade, and his joy is almost palpable. "This is a real plant," he says, grinning broadly. He nods at the $42 million mass of tanks, pipes, pumps, grinders, boilers, and catwalks inside a corrugated steel building. The plant is perched 100 yards from ConAgra Foods' Butterball plant, where 35,000 turkeys are butchered daily, surrendering their viscera to Appel's operation. The pig fat comes from four other midwestern ConAgra slaughterhouses. "To anybody who thinks this can't work on an industrial scale, I say, 'Come here and look.' This is the first commercial biorefinery in the world that can make oil from a variety of waste streams."

Still, Appel looks wearier than he did when Discover broke the news about his company's technology (see "Anything Into Oil," May 2003). Back then, when the process was still experimental, Appel predicted that the Carthage plant would crank out oil for about $15 a barrel and rack up profits from day one. But the plant was delayed by construction problems, and federal subsidies were postponed. After it started up, a foul odor angered town residents, leading to a temporary shutdown in December 2005. Production costs turned out to be $80 per barrel, meaning that for most of the plant's working life Appel has lost about $40 per barrel. As recently as last April, he feared the whole operation might implode. "There have definitely been growing pains," he says. "We have made mistakes. We were too aggressive in our earlier projections."

But now, after more than $100 million in private funding and $17 million in government grants, several hurdles have tumbled. The Carthage plant has been optimized and is expected to turn a small profit. A tax credit has leveled the playing field with other renewable fuels like biodiesel and ethanol. Appel is confident that new ozone scrubbers and other equipment will abate the odors. State officials are warily optimistic. "We are not hoping to shut them down [permanently] and take away jobs," says Connie Patterson, spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. "We have given them a window of opportunity to solve the problem."

Others are optimistic too. "I'm impressed," says Gabriel Miller, a New York University chemistry professor and a consultant to KeySpan Corporation, a gas and electric utility that serves New York. "The fuel that comes out is better than crude, and you don't need a refinery to use it. I think they can bring it deep into commercialization." Miller has recommended that KeySpan burn the oil in its generators.

Appel, a former Hofstra University basketball star, leans his 6-foot-5-inch frame against a counter in the company's lab and rubs his face. He says he is confident that the process can indeed solve thorny waste problems, supplement oil supplies, become an odor-free "good neighbor," and at last, become immensely lucrative.

The catch? It may not happen in the United States.

Left to right: An on-site lab checks oil and fertilizer quality a dozen times daily; some of the plant's 45 workers stroll under oil-bearing pipes; daily maintenance logs are kept on a whiteboard; (Below) a truck is weighed before dumping turkey leftovers; the scrubber system's exhaust stack, wrapped in a steel framework, looms over the plant.

Appel has shepherded development of the thermal conversion process(previously known as the thermal depolymerization process; Appel changed the unwieldy moniker last year) since 1997, building on organic-solids-into-oil research stretching back nearly a century. By 1999 he had lined up investors, hired an engineering staff, and had a pilot plant chewing through seven tons of waste daily in a Philadelphia industrial yard. Early in 2003, company officials predicted their first industrial-size plant would be steaming ahead 24/7 in Carthage by that summer. As it turned out, continuous production did not start until February 2005.

Which is surprising because at first blush, the thermal conversion process seems straightforward. The first thing a visitor sees when he steps into the loading bay is a fat pressurized pipe, which pushes the guts from the receiving hopper into a brawny grinder that chews them into pea-size bits. Dry feedstocks like tires and plastics need additional water at this stage, but offal is wet enough. A first-stage reactor breaks down the stuff with heat and pressure, after which the pressure rapidly drops, flashing off excess water and minerals. In turkeys, the minerals come mostly from bones, and these are shunted to a storage bin to be sold later as a high-calcium powdered fertilizer.

The remaining concentrated organic soup then pours into a second reaction tank—Appel says the two-stage nature of the process distinguishes it from dozens of failed single-stage waste-to-oil schemes devised over the last century—where it is heated to 500 degrees Fahrenheit and pressurized to 600 pounds per square inch. In 20 minutes, the process replicates what the deep earth does to dead plants and animals over centuries, chopping long, complex molecular chains of hydrogen and carbon into short-chain molecules. Next, the pressure and temperature drop, and the soup swirls through a centrifuge that separates any remaining water from the oil. The water, which in the case of slaughterhouse waste is laden with nitrogen and amino acids, is stored to be sold as a potent liquid fertilizer (see "Garden Delights," next page). Meanwhile, the oil goes to the storage tank to await the next truck. The whole process is efficient, says Terry Adams, the company's chief technology officer: Only 15 percent of the potential energy in the feedstock is used to power the operation; 85 percent is embodied in the output of oil and other products.

The oil itself meets specification D396, a type widely used to power electrical utility generators. The oil can be sold to utilities as is, further distilled into vehicle-grade diesel and gasoline, or, via a steam process, made into hydrogen. Until last year, Appel distilled his output on-site, but he has since decided to sell the oil directly to utilities and refineries. "We just don't make enough volume to make operating our own refinery viable," he says.

So why has success been so long coming? Basically, Appel says, everything has been more complex and expensive than anyone guessed. First, the conversion process needed tweaking. Each variable—temperature, pressure, volume, tank-residence time—needs to precisely match the feedstock, which proves to be no mean feat on an industrial scale. "The really difficult thing has been finding the sweet spot in the process parameters," says Appel. "This isn't a laboratory. We have to respond to the real world of varying supply. If I get two truckloads in a row of just feathers, I need to deal with that high-protein peak. Or if I get too much blood at once, the result is too much water." The solution has been to blend disparate truckloads of stock in a holding tank, making what enters the process relatively consistent.

"Fat, fiber, protein, moisture, ash—getting those right, that's our mantra," says Jim Freiss, vice president of engineering. "Now we are able to nail the same quality every day." Freiss says he and fellow engineers Terry Adams and William Lange "have learned so much that I am very confident we can build a second plant that's optimized from the start."

Chemistry was not the only challenge. Since 2004, the federal government has subsidized biodiesel, usually made from soybeans, at $1 a gallon. It gave Appel zero for the fuel he produced from turkey guts. "It was hard to believe that a competitor could walk away with a dollar a gallon while we were excluded," Appel says. In August that hole was plugged: The fuel Appel makes, known officially as renewable diesel, received a subsidy of $1 per gallon from the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which took effect in January. That boosted the company's income by $42 a barrel, allowing a slim profit of $4 a barrel.

Appel offers no apologies for needing government largesse to make money. "All oil, even fossil-fuel oil, gets government subsidies in the form of tax breaks and other incentives," he says, citing a 1998 study by the International Center for Technology Assessment showing that unsubsidized conventional gasoline would cost consumers $15 a gallon. "Before we got this, I had the only oil in the world that didn't get a subsidy."

Another hurdle: Within months after opening in February 2005, the plant smelled, and by August it had been hit by six notices of emissions violations by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. But some in the town, which has other large food processing operations, contend the new plant was unfairly singled out. "The thing was, any odor at all was blamed on them," says Mayor Kenneth Johnson. In any case, Renewable Environmental Solutions, the subsidiary of Changing World Technologies that runs the Carthage plant, spent $2 million on biofilters, scrubbers, and other odor stoppers. Between July and late September complaints had dwindled from 23 to 5 a week, says Mark Rader, an environmental specialist with the department's southwest regional office.

Nonetheless, the Department of Natural Resources issued a temporary shutdown order for the plant in December, prompting Appel and his colleagues to install more ozone scrubbers. But even critics say the persistence of a smell does not invalidate the technology. The plant is just four blocks from downtown Carthage and two blocks from residences. Building future plants in less dense areas would "make more sense," says Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Connie Patterson.

The thermal conversion process is probably the only practical large-scale method of dismantling prions, the proteins that cause mad cow disease. Although the process has never been specifically used to destroy prions, Jefferson Tester, a professor of chemical engineering at MIT, says he's confident that the proteins would be ripped apart and rendered harmless by such extreme temperatures and pressures.

Mad cow disease is thought to spread via the common American practice of feeding rendered animal parts back to animals. Appel assumed that the United States, like most modern nations, would ban the practice, creating more demand for his machinery to process leftover animal parts. In 1997 the government did ban feeding beef parts to beef cattle, but turkey and chicken cannibalism are still legal.

"We thought we would get $24 a ton for taking the waste," says Appel. "Instead, we are paying $30 a ton." That alone raises his production costs about $22 a barrel.

Which brings us to why Appel and his technology are likely to move to Europe. As the United States has crawled toward making its food supply safer, Europe has sprinted, eager to squelch mad cow disease as well as to stanch global warming and promote renewable energy. The result is a cornucopia of incentives for thermal conversion. Last summer Appel gave presentations to government officials and private investors throughout Europe, and the company is planning projects in Wales, Ireland, England, and Germany. Europeans are making the pilgrimage to the Carthage plant. In May Renewable Environmental Solutions ran 360 tons of beef waste through the Carthage plant for a visiting delegation from Irish Food Processors, the biggest beef operation in the British Isles. The Irish newspaper Sunday Tribune wrote that CEO Larry Goodman "is understood to be planning a biofuel facility . . . and hopes to have it built by next year."

The transatlantic lovefest is no wonder. In Ireland, plant operators would get an astronomical $50 per ton to haul slaughterhouse waste away, another $30 per ton in carbon dioxide emissions-reduction credits, a guaranteed price of up to $92 per barrel, and a 20-year price guarantee. "In a 500-ton-per-day plant, our production costs would be under $30 a barrel, and we could sell for about $100 a barrel," Appel says. "It's just amazing."

Only three states—California, Pennsylvania, and Virginia—have incentives that could make the process financially worthwhile for Appel. But he is encouraged by a study commissioned by an automakers' consortium showing that the thermal conversion process could be a solution to one of America's most vexing solid waste problems: the unholy mix of plastics and other leftovers from automobile metals recycling (see "Junkyard Oil," below). "If we do build a plant for that, it will likely be based in Michigan," Appel says.

Until recently, Appel was developing a "leave-behind strategy for us as a company and planning to set up in Europe only." Now he believes there will be some plants built in the United States as well. "I am just so happy to be making oil," he says. "I want to deploy this technology everywhere."

Junkyard Oil

American recyclers deftly pluck nearly all the metal from the 15 million cars junked each year, but up to 4.5 million tons of residual debris goes straight to landfills. Known as auto shredder residue, it is a virtually unrecyclable mix of at least 36 kinds of plastic, along with treated fabrics, rubber, and nylon.

Last May representatives of USCAR—a research consortium made up of DaimlerChrysler, Ford, and General Motors—along with the Argonne National Laboratory and the American Plastics Council arranged a test in which Changing World Technologies ran 3,000 pounds of the awful stuff through its Philadelphia pilot plant.

"The process is brilliant," says Candace Wheeler, a GM research scientist. "There are substances of concern in shredder residue such as PCBs, and traditional incineration of chlorinated plastics can make dioxins." But, she says, the preliminary test results indicate that the hydrolysis at the heart of the thermal conversion process breaks down the PCBs and converts the chlorine into hydrochloric acid. "No PCBs. No dioxins. No emissions," says Wheeler, noting that the principal output of the process was a "light oil" that could be used at an electric power generation plant. "It looks good from all perspectives," she says. "We think it has great potential." —B. L.

Garden Delights

Every organic gardener knows the pang of watching a neighbor blithely squirt chemical fertilizer on his vegetable garden. Sure, the schlub has no respect for nature's elegant cycles, but look at those zucchini!

Such envy could soon become history. Along with oil, the thermal conversion process cranks out a liquid fertilizer that "works a great deal like some of the instant-gratification fertilizers out there," says Jim Freiss, vice president of engineering for Changing World Technologies. Featuring 9 percent nitrogen, 1 percent phosphorus, 2 percent potash, and 19 amino acids, it is, in essence, "an organic Miracle-Gro," he says. "In the organic industry, these kinds of nutrient concentrations are unheard-of. The best that's out there is on the order of 6 percent nitrogen."

Tests on tomato and pepper plants conducted by Joseph Kloepper, professor of plant pathology at Auburn University in Alabama, confirmed the fertilizer's potency. "In my experience," he wrote in a summary paper, "it is rare to find a biological product that demonstrates such a consistent promotion of overall plant growth and root growth on two crops in two different field soils."

Fertilizer-industry officials are excited as well. "Because it has been through high temperatures, there is no coliform bacteria or any of the other problems often associated with organic fertilizers such as manures," says Raj Mehta, president of Organica Biotech, a manufacturer of nonsynthetic fertilizers and pesticides. "I'm convinced there will be a large market for this." —B. L.

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Understanding Algae As An Alternative Fuel Source: Will The Real Algae X Please Stand Up

by Mary Anne Simpson
The recent creation of AXI, LLC is an alliance between Allied Minds, Inc. a seed investment company and the University of Washington. The alliance came about because of Professor Rose Ann Cattolico PhD, an algae-to-fuel expert. Professor Cattolico has been on the faculty and conducting algae research since 1975. Her research includes, chloroplast genome architecture and gene function in non-chlorophy b containing algae and functional genetic diversity within stramenopile population. Professor Cattolico has discovered a unique patented technology, she calls Algae X.

The technology will be utilized in the development and creation of various algae species targeted to high yield per acre and high levels of usable alternative oil for heating and fuel. All algae is not equal in terms of creating an alternative to fossil fuels or reliance on foreign oil supplies. Algae X meets the threshold criteria and goes one better. It appears to have no adverse effect on food supply economics and it does not increase green house gas emissions.

According to the AXI LLC web site, Professor Cattolico´s technology is the basis for the licensing agreement with the University of Washington and she will will play a major role in AXI. In a press release, Professor Cattolico states: " Our proprietary methodology for developing specific growth and productivity traits will help in any algai production system improve its output of inexpensive, oil-rich algae as the raw material for the generation of biofuel." An important note is the current concern of corn-based ethanol impacting the cost of livestock, poultry feed and basic food production. Algae can be grown in the terrain unsuitable for grain, corn or soybeans. In addition, algae production will not impact the cost of feed or food production.

Current estimates by experts in the Bio-fuel industry and the Department of Energy report that algae fuel can yield up to 30-times more energy per-acre than land crops such as soybeans. The estimates reported in Bio-fuel Digest show Algae can produce 1,800 to 9,000 gallons of bio-fuel per acre (GPA) compared to Tallow, Chinese at 970-GPA, Palm Oil at 508-GPA, Coconut at 230-GPA and Soybean at a maximum of 98.6-GPA. Algae has the additional benefit of absorbing SOx and NOx two compounds which cause acid rain. The adaptability of the thousands of types of algae to a range of world-wide land/water masses is another major benefit.

Standing on The Shoulders of Others:

The idea that algae could be used as an alternative fuel source began in the 1950s. President Carter in 1978 initiated the Solar Energy Research Center in Golden Colorado in response to the energy crises of the 1970s. He consolidated all energy related departments into what we know today as the DOE or Department of Energy. A sub-part of the Solar Energy Research Center was founded the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Studies and research into the uses of plant life as a source of biofuels began in this period. Particularly relevant to the discussion of algae as a biofuel began in the Carter Administration and reached its mecca for funding under the Reagan administration.

Enormous breakthroughs occur ed in narrowing down the nearly 3,000 species of algae to a core 300 species for research and development during the DOE´s funding period of 1978-1995. Important field research was conducted in New Mexico, Utah, California and Hawaii which produced patented technologies. More importantly, scientists were able to move lab experiments to the field and determined that lab results were not borne out in the field. By virtue of the combined efforts of lab scientists and tests in the field new strains of algae were produced which increases the lipid content necessary for oil production and increased the all ready rapid growth of algae.

Initially the focus was to use algae to produce hydrogen. In the early 1980s the focus turned to using algae as a substitute for bio-diesel. In 1995, under pressure by budget constraints, nearly all funding was lost for the algae-related ongoing projects. Instead the DOE refocused its small alternative fuel funds in bio-ethanol projects. Even during the height of the program´s boom years of 1985 and 1986 this ahead of it´s time wing of government only received $2.75-million annually. Most years the algae program received less than $2-million. Parenthetically, in the early 1990s funding shrunk to $500,000 or less. It was during this time in which the algae research began to show great dividends for meeting it´s original mission to develop a low cost, high in oil, fast growing algae ideal for alternative fuel sources. A wind-up report was published recently outlining the origin and evolution of the Department of Energy´s algae work. Click to see.
Necessity Is The Mother of Invention:

When the likes of Boone Pickens a lifetime oil man expresses concerns about supply and demand shortages in fossil fuels and consumers begin feeling the pain at the gas pump and record high heating oil prices, something happens. That something is dusting off the research of the past 50-years and beginning an earnest examination of alternatives to fossil fuels. In recent years, a huge algae project is underway in the State of Texas. The National Algae Foundation is located in Texas. The University of Virginia has launched three-algae to fuel research projects. In the private sector, Ceres, Solazyme, PetroSun and others are in full speed with research and development of algae-to-fuel projects. Japan, Argentina, Australia and Ireland are involved in the research and development of varying types of algae for use as bio-fuel. International oil companies and airlines have joined in the algae band wagon over the past year by allocating resources and funding. In a perfect world, the call of scientists would have avoided what has turned out to be inevitable.

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