Archive for the ‘Good Science’ Category

Weather Modification Methods That May Actually Work

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

There is much said about modifying weather by various conspiracy theorists and alike.  Often said to be the result of chemtrails or RF weapons, the fact is that the weather is very hard to modify.  It can be modified, but only under certain conditions and in a very localized area.

The best known method of weather modification is cloud seeding.  While data is sparse on the total effectiveness, especially in different conditions, it does seem to work, at least when applied to favorable clouds.   There are some other methods of weather modification.  I’ve listed them to show just how difficult really is.

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Some Are Up In Arms Over Bodies Being Used For Crash Experiments

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Cars have never been safer.  That fact is largely due to the use of crash tests and destructive experiments conducted on car designs.   Similar tests have improved the safety of everything from airline seats to passenger rail cars.

To do these tests, sophisticated crash test dummies have been developed.  These dummies have improved vastly over the years.  They are reusable, packed with sensors and designed to accurately mimic the human body’s response to crashes.

However, to make these dummies and to validate their response, there must be something to compare them to.  Ideally, that would be real, living, breathing, healthy, humans.  Unfortunately, ethics boards tend to have a problem with using humans for anything other than the most benign of crash tests.  Living human volunteers are still used for some things, like range of motion measurements or determining things like tissue density.  When it comes to actual crash tests, however, it’s dead humans, cadavers, that are used to conduct the tests.

The overwhelming majority of crash tests don’t use cadavers, but they remain an important part of research.  The bodies are treated with respect and are generally wrapped in materials that cover parts like the face and hands.  But, in the end, they are hurled against things and beaten to a pulp before being x-rayed or autopsied to determine the injuries sustained.

This really bothers some people a lot…


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Most of the bodies used are from those who never granted specific permission to use their remains in crash tests, but did donate their bodies to science.  There is no requirement that those who agreed to have their bodies used for scientific purposes are given more details about what kind of research that might be.  In fact, it’s often not until after they die that it is determined how the body will be used.

I find the distaste for this to be misplaced.  If one donates their body to science, it is to be expected that things will happen to it that might not be pretty.  If it doesn’t get hurled against a wall, it will be chopped up in pathology studies or anatomy classes or it might be left out to rot in decay studies.  No, it’s not pleasant to think of, especially with loved ones, but it’s not much worse than the alternative.  If not donated to science, the body will either be put into the ground to rot or burned.   Neither of these are really something many of us want to look forward to.  But that’s death, which is something I am trying to put off for as long as reasonably possible.

If nothing else, this use of cadavers could be considered the most important, at least in so far as its impact on the living.  Few other experiments represent a more direct means of saving human lives.

Personally, I do not find it deceptive to not tell donors or their families about the possibilities of crash tests.  The best way of dealing with a grieving family, in my opinion, is to provide some basic information.  For example, one could say “Your relative has decided to donate their body to science.  Their remains will be used in a manner that will advance scientific and medical knowledge.   There are a number of ways this might happen.  We could give you the details about the kind of experiments carried out, but to be honest, you would probably wouldn’t want to hear all the details.”

It’s no different than most funeral arrangements.  Families may know their loved one will be embalmed and prepared for display and burial.  However, they aren’t normally given the full details about how the deceased will have their blood drained, their eyes glued shut and cotton balls stuffed up their anus.  That’s just not a picture most would want to have.

 

 

Why do enviornmental groups hate desalination?

Saturday, April 12th, 2014

Water is one of the most important resources to society.  The availability of water has dictated the locations of some cities and limited the growth of others.  It is also one of the major necessities for agriculture.

Many areas have limited supplies of water and others are prone to shortages or droughts.  Still others do have sufficient water supplies, but in securing necessary water, huge quantities had to be diverted, resulting in ecological disasters such as the shrinking of the Aral Sea.

kennedyquoteOf course, there is an effectively limitless supply of water in the world’s oceans, and many of the most arid regions are located near the coast.  However, ocean water is far too salty for consumption by humans, for irrigation and for most other uses.   Thus, it is not that the world lacks water – we have plenty of it, but that many areas lack fresh water.

Therefore, assuming it could be made economical, desalination would seem like an ideal solution to this persistent problem.  Desalination is the only source of water that can be considered to be, for all intents and purposes, unlimited.  After all, all nearly all water ends up back in the ocean anyway.  With desalination, there are no concerns over droughts or of overdrawing an aquifer.  There are no seasonal shortages or reduction in the availability of water.

It could also be argued that desalination, in and of itself, has virtually no negative ecological consequences.  The need for water has lead to aquifers being depleted, rivers being diverted, lakes running dry and to the construction of massive dams and canals, sometimes with severe environmental consequences.   Therefore, even in areas where adequate fresh water is available, using desalination for basic water needs could greatly reduce the impacts of water sourced from rivers, lakes and aquifers.

The only negative environmental consequence associated with desalination is the need to dispose of the highly concentrated brine that is produced.  Separating the water from the sale of seawater means that salt must be disposed of.  It is usually in the form of a highly concentrated brine, much more salty than the water that was taken in.  This brine is not itself toxic, but the salinity levels are too high for most marine life.   If it were to be discharged directly into the ocean, it would result in the area around the discharge becoming too salty for most marine life.

This is certainly not an unmanageable problem.  The most obvious solution is to dilute and disperse the waste bring back into the ocean.  This is possible, but it can be a major task for large facilities.  Other options include recycling the brine into a useful product.  For example, it can be used to produce saltcrete.  Or, it can be further concentrated and then dried into salt, which can be sold commercially.

desalplantoperationalwThe one major downside of desalination is that it is energy intensive, far more energy intensive than more conventional means of obtaining freshwater. In addition to energy usage, desalination plants can be complicated, and the handling of saltwater requires the use of corrosion-resistant materials.  The water produced often requires additives for PH adjustment and the addition of trace minerals.  All of this adds to the expense of desalination as a water source.

For this reason, it is not generally used if other alternatives exist.  Many parts of the world, including much of the middle east and numerous islands are dependent on desalination to provide for their basic water needs.  While it does work for this, it remains the option of last resort, due to the economics.

That said, the economics of desalination have been improving steadily over the years.  With increasing demand for water, a great deal has been invested in desalination research and development.  New plants are constantly being built with ever-increasing efficiency and improved economics.  In recent years, major improvements have been made to reverse osmosis-based water desalination systems, which are now being deployed on an industrial scale.  The efficiency of distillation systems have also improved with the introduction of better heat recovery and multiple-effect distillation.

Modern desalination plants can now get a large portion of their energy requirements from the waste heat produced by power generation.  The use of co-generation for desalination further improves economics and reduce energy requirements.  Nuclear desalination is an especially appealing option, since nuclear reactors can produce ample process heat without emissions.  The Soviet Union built a highly successful plant to produce water from the Caspian Sea and today, India and China are exploring the use of nuclear reactors to run large desalination plants.

So, desalination is a good thing and we would like to see it continue to improve and become more economical, so it could be put to greater use….right?

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Don’t Worry, Yellowstone Won’t (Likely) Erupt

Friday, April 4th, 2014

Yellowstone National Park is a true national treasure of the United States and indeed is one of the world’s most unique and majestic natural settings.  The park is home to pristine wilderness and wildlife and to numerous dramatic geothermal features like geysers and hot springs.  The park is visited by more than three million per year and is one of the most popular national parks in the world.

The unique topography and geothermal activity are the result of a massive supervolcano which the park sits above.  It has been more than two million years since the volcano had a “mega eruption” amd 70,000 since it had even a minor eruption event. Still, if it were to erupt, it has the potential to cause devastation to the United States, North America, the Western Hemisphere and even the entire world.  Those outside of North America would likely be spared the most direct effects, although there could be noticeable climate effects.  However, the sheer volume of North American farmland that would be devastated would result in a global food crisis.

There a reasonable possibility that Yellowstone will erupt some time in the next hundred thousand years, but the probability of it erupting in any of our lifetimes is miniscule.

Still, many are becoming extremely concerned after a number of videos showed up online reporting to show bison or other animals fleeing the Yellowstone area.  It must mean the whole thing is about to blow… right?   According to some it does.  Because these original videos were followed by many conspiracy-oriented videos claiming that the government is keeping down the information about the impending eruption.


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UN Court Orders Japan To Stop Antarctic Whaling

Monday, March 31st, 2014

I have said it before and I will say it again: if you want to persuade Japan to stop whaling, then you must do so through diplomacy and legal methods.  It’s not that I am a huge fan of whaling, but the actions of Sea Shepherd are totally ineffective, counter-productive, extremely dangerous and highly illegal.  They qualify as acts of piracy, as they are a direct attack on the safety of unarmed vessels on the high seas.

For those who actually would like to see Japanese whaling come to an end, there has recently been a major step in that direction.  And no, it did not happen because a group of idiot activists were ramming Japanese vessels.

Via The New York Times:

U.N. Court Orders Japan to Halt Antarctic Whaling

PARIS — The United Nations’ highest court on Monday ordered Japan to halt its annual whaling hunt in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, saying that its present program was not being carried out for scientific purposes, as Japan has claimed.

In a 12-to-4 judgment, the International Court of Justice in The Hague found that Japan was in breach of its international obligations by catching and killing minke whales and issuing permits for hunting humpback and fin whales within the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, established by the International Whaling Commission.

Reading a summary of the judgment, presiding Judge Peter Tomka of Slovakia said that the present “research program,” dating to 2005, has involved the killing of 3,600 minke whales and a number of fin whales, but that its “scientific output to date appears limited.” The ruling suggested instead that Japan’s whaling hunt served political and economic reasons.

Lawyers attending the proceedings said there was a gasp in the audience when Judge Tomka ordered Japan to immediately “revoke all whaling permits” and not issue any new ones under the existing program.

“I rarely heard such an unequivocal, strong ruling at this court,” said a lawyer with long experience at the court who asked not to be named because he is working on a case in progress.

The ruling is binding, and Japan cannot appeal. No immediate reaction from Japan was available, although it has said it would abide by any judgment in the case. But a Japanese delegate said in earlier hearings that Japan might consider withdrawing from the whaling commission, which oversees management of the world’s whale populations.

The court left open the possibility for future whale hunting if Japan redesigned its program. Tokyo has said that it needs data to monitor the impact of whales on its fishing industry and to monitor the whale population’s recovery from overfishing.

Unfortunately, the times article went on to quote a Sea Shepherd representative on the issue, which is a shame, because those idiots should not be regarded as a respectable authority on the issue or even legitimate anti-whaling activists. There are plenty of groups out there who oppose Japanese whaling and do so through legal and sane means.

It’s important to note that while this is a big step, it does not mean that Japan won’t conduct any further whaling or that the issue is closed.   First, this only applies to the Antarctic region.  Although that is the most high profile region of Japanese whaling, the Japanese also conduct whaling in the northern Pacific and that is not affected by the ruling.

Another important consideration is that the decision only reflects Japan’s commitment to the International Whaling Commission treaty.  There is no standing international law against whaling in general.  The only reason Japan is restricted from whaling is that the country signed a treaty to abide by IWC rules.  Those rules include a ban on whaling for all but research purposes.  It should be noted that the research clause was, in part, inserted into the general ban on whaling to appease Japan, who wished to continue whaling activities.  Calling it “research” makes it more politically palatable.

Therefore the court has ruled that Japan must cease whaling because their activities do not quality as “research,” and therefore are not in line with the rules of the treaty.  However, because it’s a voluntary treaty, Japan could potentially respond by simply choosing to withdraw from the IWC.  They have the right to do so.   They just might end up doing that, as they have considered withdrawing before.

As a result of these limits, this ruling should not be regarded as an the ultimate victory in the fight against whaling.  What Japan will do next is unclear.  Though they have stated they will abide by the ruling, they may decide to leave the IWC, thus voiding their treaty obligations, or they may simply shift the focus of their whaling program to other ocean regions.   None the less, this is still a major step toward reducing or eliminating Japanese whaling.   If the effort to do so is successful, it will be through diplomacy, appeals to the Japanese public and legal efforts and not through harassing whaling vessels with dangerous and illegal stunts.

Electric Taxiing May Provide Signifficant Aircraft Fuel Savings

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

While looking at some aircraft videos on Youtube I came across a new technology which will soon be available in both new aircraft and for retrofit applications on existing airliners. The technology in question is electric wheel motors for taxiing.

While it might not seem like a big fuel user, aircraft burn significant fuel while taxing around airports after landing and before takeoff. This is because jet engines happen to be especially inefficient when idled and operating at low power settings. Therefore, once the aircraft starts up its engines and uses them to slowly move down the taxiway, it is burning significant quantities of fuel. For short-run flights, with frequent landings and takeoffs, up to 5-10% of fuel can be burned on the ground.

Airbus, Honeywell and others have been developing a system which replaces this with an electric-driven system. It uses light weight electric motors connected directly to the wheels of the aircraft. Power is provided by the aircraft’s APU. The APU uses significantly less fuel than the main engines of the aircraft.


The system has some other major benefits. Control is far more nimble and precise than is achieved using jet thrust, and less time running the jet engines on the ground means less chance for FOD to be sucked into the intakes and damage the engines. The systems also allow the aircraft to reverse on their own. Normally this would require the assistance of a pushback tractor. As a result, the aircraft can leave the gate without needing to wait for a tractor could simplify and expedite the procedures for entering and departing gates.

This technology has not been deployed earlier for a number of reasons. First, aviation tends to be very conservative about adopting new and unproven systems, especially when existing ones get the job done. Secondly, weight is always an issue, so it has required manufacturers to develop a full system of electric taxiing that is light enough that its additional weight is more than offset by the savings provided.

There have also been efforts to save additional fuel by keeping the APU off for longer periods of time or using a smaller APU through the use of more on board battery capacity. Unfortunately this has been problematic both because of the weight of batteries and because of the problems experienced with high capacity and lightweight lithium ion batteries on aircraft such as the 787.

The Truth About NIF

Saturday, March 8th, 2014

Much has been made about the National Ignition Facility – a US Government facility where as massive array of pulsed power lasers is used to irradiate a tiny capsule of deuterium and tritium in order to produce nuclear fusion.  NIF is a truly giant scientific installation, and there’s no disputing its one of the foremost “big science” centers in the world for things like laser optics, pulsed power, plasma physics and nuclear fusion.  The technology is impressive and it will surely produce volumes of important scientific data.

However, there is some confusion, much of it intentional, about the purpose and capabilities of the facility.

It is often portrayed as an experimental prototype for a power-generating fusion reactor.  It’s really not.  The design of the facility precludes it from ever producing useful energy and that’s not the point.  It’s also not the primary objective of NIF to research how nuclear fusion can be harnessed to produce usable energy.  Data to that end may be generated in the process, but the basic design of the facility precludes such a system from being turned into a power plant.

The stated goal of the facility is also often reported inaccurately.  Achieving “ignition” simply means that enough fusion has occurred for additional fusion to be produced without more external power.  In other words, the reaction becomes self-sustaining, if only for a tiny fraction of a second.  Ignition has not yet been achieved, though it is hoped it soon will.  However, it’s less dramatic than it is often described.  The moment when the calculations come back and reveal that the point of ignition has been achieved will not really be that revolutionary.  it won’t mean that suddenly boundless energy is being produced.  After all, nobody doubts that ignition is possible, it is only a question of how much power will need to be concentrated before it actually happens.
Via the Guardian:

Sustainable nuclear fusion breakthrough raises hopes for ultimate green energy
Scientists have moved a step closer to achieving sustainable nuclear fusion and almost limitless clean energy

US researchers have achieved a world first in an ambitious experiment that aims to recreate the conditions at the heart of the sun and pave the way for nuclear fusion reactors.

The scientists generated more energy from fusion reactions than they put into the nuclear fuel, in a small but crucial step along the road to harnessing fusion power. The ultimate goal – to produce more energy than the whole experiment consumes – remains a long way off, but the feat has nonetheless raised hopes that after decades of setbacks, firm progress is finally being made.

Fusion energy has the potential to become a radical alternative power source, with zero carbon emissions during operation and minimal waste, but the technical difficulties in demonstrating fusion in the lab have so far proved overwhelming. While existing nuclear reactors generate energy by splitting atoms into lighter particles, fusion reactors combine light atomic nuclei into heavier particles.

In their experiments, researchers at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California use a bank of 192 powerful lasers to crush a minuscule amount of fuel so hard and fast that it becomes hotter than the sun.

The process is not straightforward. The lasers are fired into a gold capsule that holds a 2mm-wide spherical pellet. The fuel is coated on the inside of this plastic pellet in a layer as thin as a human hair.

When the laser light enters the gold capsule, it makes the walls of the gold container emit x-rays, which heat the pellet and make it implode with extraordinary ferocity. The fuel, a mixture of hydrogen isotopes called tritium and deuterium, partially fuses under the intense conditions.

No, they didn’t actually get more energy out of the system than was put in. They just got slightly more energy from the reaction than the amount of energy deposited on the fusion fuel capsule to make it happen.   It’s really not getting us any closer to using nuclear fusion as a limitless energy source.  In fact, it should be noted that this is far from the first time humanity managed to get a lot more energy out of a fusion reaction than was used to initiate it.   That happened in 1952 and was significantly larger.

A few facts to put it in context:

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First New Pictures From the Lunar Surface

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

Before today, there were two nations that had managed to land a craft on the surface of the moon and beam back data and pictures.  The United States and the Soviet Union.  Both landed a number of unmanned probes.   The US also sent twelve manned missions to the lunar surface.  The Soviet Union didn’t send any humans but did send some sophisticated unmanned missions including two remote controlled rovers.

The last transmission from the moons surface was made by a Soviet probe in 1976.  While there have been other craft to orbit the moon or crash into it, this was the last surface probe.

Now a third nation has landed a probe on the moon and for the first time in thirty years the surface of the moon is being beamed back.

Via MSNBC:

China’s first moon rover lands — and rolls onto lunar surface

BEIJING — China on Saturday successfully carried out the world’s first soft landing of a space probe on the moon in nearly four decades, state media said. Hours later, video footage showed the probe’s rover rolling onto the lunar surface.

The achievement marked the next stage in an ambitious space program that aims to eventually put a Chinese astronaut on the moon.

The unmanned Chang’e 3 lander, named after a mythical Chinese goddess of the moon, touched down on Earth’s nearest neighbor following a 12-minute landing process.

The probe carried a six-wheeled moon rover called Yutu, or “Jade Rabbit,” the goddess’ pet in the myth. Within hours of its landing on a fairly flat, Earth-facing part of the moon, the rover separated from the Chang’e lander to embark on a three-month scientific exploration.

As an American, I’m a bit saddened to see someone else sending payloads to the moon while our own once-great space program seems to be getting nowhere fast. Still, it’s good to see the the moon is once again being visited by humankind. Though it might not be the most difficult planetary body to get to nor the one with the greatest scientific discoveries waiting, there is something about the familiarity and closeness of the moon that seems to beacon.

I hope this will be the start of a new era of lunar exploration missions by numerous countries.

And here’s the first picture…

Project Iceworm: An Amazing Example of What Nuclear Energy Can Do

Friday, November 15th, 2013

In 1960, a project was undertaken by the US military the likes of which seem almost impossible today.  In fact, I doubt we would ever make it past an environmental impact study.  But back then, there seemed to be a more ambitious spirit for big feats of imagination and engineering.

Project Iceworm was an attempt to build a veritable city under the snow and ice of Greenland.  Tunnels were cut into the ice and buildings erected which housed hundreds of personnel.  The encampment, dubbed Camp Century,  had heated barracks, a kitchen, mess hall, medical center, laboratories.  The camp was staffed year round by more than 200.

All of this was made possible by a cutting edge nuclear reactor.  Keeping the camp powered by conventional means required the transport of enormous volumes of diesel fuel.  This was simply not sustainable for such a large a remotely-located facility.  The PM-2A was one of the first portable nuclear power systems ever created.  It was transported to the site and preformed well for the length of the project.   It provided ample electricity, which was used for everything from heating the structures to melting ice to provide drinking water.

A truly amazing film was made to document the project:



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Retraction Watch: A Blog Worth Reading

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

I recently came across a blog that should be added to your bookmarks if you are a fan of science, science and public policy, skepticism or opposition to bad science.  Retraction Watch follows scientific studies that have been retracted in peer reviewed journals.

The peer review process is a minimum standard for scientific study reporting.  It catches the most obvious problems, but errors can and do slip through.  Occasionally, entire studies turn out to be flawed after being published.  In these cases, they must be retracted or, at least, amended.  It’s understandable that this would happen from time to time, and often it is because of a minor issue or technicality.  However, all too often, the retractions have more disturbing causes, including dishonesty on the part of the researchers – something peer review is not always good at catching.

The number of scientific studies retracted has been on the rise.  It’s not entirely clear whether this is because of more openness and scrutiny, lower standards in some journals or an increase in fraud.

The blog is eye-opening and a bit disturbing.  It is definitely worth a read.