Plastics are Forever

Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “diamonds” does it? Besides, that’s the beef with plastics—they last forever! Diamonds do too, but that’s the appeal. With plastics we really want them to go away when we are done with them. Pesky buggers like to stick around, and even when they fall apart into little plastic bits they still last forever.

Recycling is the Holy Grail of plastics. There are too many kinds right now and they are too hard to sort and separate. When you melt down a mix of plastics into a goo you get a new plastic, not what you started with, and that’s not the intent of recycling.


You can see we have a growing problem. Some have suggested we replace petroleum-based plastics with bio-plastics that will degrade after use. So far the materials tested are heavier, costlier, and less durable than what we have. The reason we use so many damn plastics is that they work! They are light, cheap, and tough, and have applications in so many areas in our lives that we would literally be lost without them.

The solution to any waste problem is to plan ahead. Manufacturing is traditionally a one-and-done affair. You get some raw materials, you stamp out your widgets, you sell them and send them away. If you make money you do it all over again.

In today’s world we ought to think about the end use and recovery of the materials before we make anything. That way we have a plan in place for the waste stream. In fact it is not a waste stream at all but a resource. The glass, aluminum, and steel industries all count on a significant portion of recycled scrap in their production processes.

The geniuses at Lawrence Berkeley Lab are looking to do the same with plastics. The Molecular Foundry has been experimenting with this stuff called poly-diketoneamine (PDK) that may do the trick. Plastics weren’t built to be recycled. Plastics made from this stuff are, however.

All plastics are polymers, made up of smaller, repeating units called monomers. The base materials are the same (hydrocarbons) for all plastics but it’s the additives that determine the different properties. These additives make the various types of plastics incompatible with each other when it comes to recycling. Once added these chemicals can’t be un-added and those polymers can’t be broken back down into their constituent monomers.

It is different with PDK plastics. The bonds are reversible and the end-use plastics can be broken down and the original monomers recovered and formed into new plastics again. The linear path of creation to use to disposal now becomes a circular one of creation to use to re-use. Now that’s a “forever” plastic!

I remember once talking to a nuclear engineer about the nuclear waste problem. He thought it was a mistake to bury the wastes too deep. He didn’t want the stuff to be too hard to get to. He said “we might need it later.” It was not something I’d heard before. He talked about all the energy and human ingenuity that went into the extraction and processing of these materials and what a shame it was that we would throw them away when done with them. The fact that they were still radioactive, to him, was a good thing. That meant they still had value.

I sure liked his perspective. We need more thinking like that.


I learned a new word—Apohele. You say AH-POE-HAY-LAY, and would it surprise you that it is from Hawaiian? It means “orbit” and is an unofficial name for a group of asteroids that are also called  Atiras.

Atira is more official because it has generally been the custom in astronomy to name similar objects after the first of those objects to be spotted and recognized. The first in the class was asteroid 163693 found in 2003. The newest member of the class is 2019 LF6. This recently-found asteroid is about a kilometer across and travels around the Sun in 151 days, the shortest “year” of any non-planet object. Mercury’s year is 88 days while Venus’ is 225 days. (Check out the graphic below.)

There are about twenty such Apohele known. All of them orbit the Sun within the Earth’s orbit, which makes them unusual. Orbits are elliptical so they have a far point (aphelion) and a near point (perihelion). Apohele have aphelions less than Earth’s perihelion.

NEAs or Near Earth Asteroids are broken into three other groups: Amors, Apollos, and Atens. Amors are outside of Earth’s solar path but within Mars’ orbit. Apollos and Atens cross the Earth’s orbit but vary in orbital size. To get technical, Apollos have a semi-major axis larger than Earth’s, and Atens have a semi-major axis smaller than Earth’s. (You might remember such things from high school math.) All are names from mythology—Atira is a Pawnee goddess.

So which one do you like better: Atira or Apohele?


Real People. Not Actors.

Chevy ran a pickup ad during the All-Star Game last night that featured a bunch of jamokes checkin’ out the latest cool ride. They oohed and aahed over a cheesy electric tailgate and then a bunch of rocks fell from the sky and landed in the cargo bed.

And then we are informed that these are “real people” and “not actors.”

Well I say they are a bunch of scabs. They didn’t do that shit for free, they got some kind of renumeration, even if it is just “I’m on TV” bragging rights. So since they aren’t actors that means the company brought in scabs to film the commercial. Actors are real. They have unions and everything.

Either that or the company is a bunch of cheap motherfuckers who don’t have the decency to pay people who do work for them. Actors are hired. They don’t just show up.

Yeah, like I want to buy products from that outfit.

In troubled times it is worth remembering that “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.”

Energy- intensive

I recently finished Vaclav Smil’s Energy and Civilization: a history from MIT Press.

It is not light summer reading. In fact, the book requires a good deal of concentration as it is information dense, quantitative in nature, and grand in scope.

smil cover

In short, it is energy-intensive.

But that is to be expected. It’s a big story with a lot of actors and a timeline of millenia. It is history, for sure, but not the usual stuff of battles and leaders, or prophets and zealots. It is more incremental and focuses on technological changes, everything from the moldboard plow to the integrated circuit.

And he puts numbers on everything. (Be sure to brush up on metric units!) I like that. If you can measure something, or at least work up a reasonable estimate, then why not do it? It beats just talking. Sometimes numbers aren’t revealing, but most of the time they are, so it is just intellectual laziness not to whip out the slide rule and report results. Smil is careful to explain the assumptions behind the numbers and to describe their uncertainties. That is essential to a good discussion.

Energy and Civilization won’t make Oprah’s list but it will enrich your view of the world. Smil shows us the energy costs of living the way we do and he asks us if we should continue to do so. I think that’s an important question regardless of the answer.


Facebook wants to get in on the currency business. They are creating a new form of digital payment called Libra and calling it a cryptocurrency. It isn’t really, but it relies on the same technology, the blockchain. A blockchain is a software product—a bunch of computer code that enables a task. In this case the creation and maintenance of a ledger, or record-keeping system.

Blockchains are appealing because they rely on a distributed network of nodes and users. They are decentralized and thus theoretically more secure and more robust than any one particular data location. At least that’s what the computer geniuses say, and I’m not here to argue with them.

The Libra blockchain will be run by a non-profit composed of a lot of fancy folks. Here’s a nice graphic about it:


The wiggly-wavey thing is the symbol for Libra currency. Users of Libra will get a sort of PayPal on steroids. They will have a digital wallet and they can pay for things (and/or receive payment) wherever they have access to the wallet, be it on a computer or smartphone. If you have an internet connection you have a payment system. Libra’s goal is to be worldwide. You buy Libra with your local currency and get an equivalent amount of digital money, and since it is digital it can be moved around and transacted more readily than ordinary currency. And you avoid the payment of transaction fees like with credit cards (there are fees, just vanishingly small to the ordinary user).

You can’t make money with Libra. It is just a platform, and you can’t earn interest on your deposits in your digital wallet. But the whole thing is a money-making strategy for its investors. You got an extra ten million bucks? You can be one, too. People who invest ten million US dollars expect a return. And the Libra Investment Token will give them that. The more people who use Libra the more these investors will make, kind of like the old-fashioned pyramid schemes.

Libra is not a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin because Bitcoin derives its value from the underlying blockchain technology itself. People crunch numbers with computers to support the blockchain cryptography and they get paid in Bitcoin. Libra is more like a traditional investment. The Libra Association will invest in fiat currencies, government bonds, and other securities to guarantee a stable value for Libra. In that sense it is more like an ETF than a cryptocurrency. Due to the volatility of things like Bitcoin a market has emerged for what are known as stablecoins which are tied to real-world assets like commodities. Libra is closer to that.

Users of Libra coin gain access and convenience. For people who don’t use banks, this could be a real boon. Libra Investment Token holders will get rich, very rich, even if only a small percentage of Facebook’s user base of over two billion people participate.

And what does Facebook get out of all this? You won’t need a Facebook account to use Libra, and Facebook’s digital wallet, called Calibra, won’t require one either. Mark Zuckerberg will tell you it is about serving the under-served in the world financial marketplace, which is all very nice, but ultimately this is a for-profit company.

A digital platform is a digital platform. If people use it, you can use that platform to sell other products and services. I assume Facebook’s leap into new forms of currency is another version of their current business model.

Software is famous for bugs. And also for being marketed well before it is bug-free. Just look at the Boeing 737-MAX tragedies to see the consequences of that. I’m not going to put my money in a Libra coin/Calibra wallet just yet, but I won’t be surprised if we all have something like that in the very near future.

Got Gas?

When you think about the amount of energy it takes to produce our food you could say we are actually just eating petroleum. Intensive agriculture requires a lot of fossil fuels especially when you include the packaging and shipping. I know that we actually eat the corn, wheat, apples, or blueberries, or stuff made from them, but you can’t have any of that without oil and gas.

The gas is methane. It is the cheapest and most abundant fuel source. And it burns the cleanest. The US, because of fracking, has so much natural gas (methane) that it just burns it (flaring) instead of processing and shipping it.

Now a company wants to make food from methane. They are called Calysta and they have backing from no less than BP, one of the world’s energy giants. This food is not for human consumption, at least not directly. The stuff, called FeedKind, is for aquaculture (fish farms) and other livestock. They even imagine it going to pets! These days pets get top-of-the-line stuff, no more Alpo and table scraps, so I’m not sure that will fly. Maybe pet owners on a budget.

These guys use bacteria to ferment a mixture of gases—the methane of course, along with oxygen and nitrogen—which produces a goop that they dry and make into pellets. Most people find that repulsive, but I think it is fascinating. Think of the benefit: production of edible protein without using farmland!

This is from the company website:



It takes a lot of energy to do this, but it takes a lot of energy to produce your morning cup of coffee. Some time in the future, when only rich people will be able to eat wild-caught salmon, the rest of us will be grubbing down on fat fillets from tank-raised gas-fed GMO beasts.


Pig in a Poke

China is the largest producer of pork in the world. They slaughter over 600 million hogs annually and currently have a herd of over 400 million. Add those two together and you get a billion.

So it is a big deal that there have been outbreaks of African Swine Fever:


The disease has spread to neighboring countries like Vietnam and Laos. Herd culls are taking place all over Southeast Asia.

In the US we market over 100 million hogs per year and about one-fourth of that is exported. That’s a lot of food. You’d think a big agricultural disaster like losing tons of meat in a nation’s food supply would make a bigger impact. Maybe it is. After all, this is China, and we can’t be too sure about the information coming out of there.

Back in the States the only talk I see is about US producers perhaps taking advantage of the pork shortage. No one talks about all this lost energy—all this sad, preventable waste. Or about whether people will suffer because of it.

It is nice to have surpluses. You can’t have a civilization unless you over-produce basic commodities. In olden times, famine, plague, and pestilence could destroy a civilization. In today’s world a virus ravages millions of pounds of nutritionally-dense food and we get nothing more than a “market correction.”

At least I hope so. African Swine Fever makes for a great doomsday scenario. It spreads across the globe, mutates, and wipes out all of our livestock! Veganism conquers the world overnight.  I watched a lot of dystopian sci-fi flicks in the 70s: Silent Running, Rollerball, Soylent Green, Omega Man, Planet of the Apes, Logan’s Run, Westworld, The Andromeda Strain, etc.

Perhaps that wasn’t healthy for a growing boy.


Big Trucks

I’m goin’ out on the highway

listen to them big trucks whi-ine

White Freightliner

Won’t you steal away my mind

–Townes Van Zandt (“White Freightliner Blues”)

Freightliner is an Oregon company now owned by Daimler Trucks. You’ve seen the tractors out there alongside the Kenworths, Macks, Peterbilts, and such, hauling trailers up and down the interstates. This is big business: $700 billion in 2017, almost 80% of the nation’s freight value. In physical terms that’s almost 11 billion tons of cargo or 70% of the domestic market.

We are all dependent on these machines. The industry likes to say if you got it, a trucker brought it. And they are right.

But that “big truck whine” might sound quite a bit different these days. Freightliner has a line of natural gas-powered haulers, for example, and they are also introducing two all-electric models, the eCascadia and the eM2 106. That guy with the space company gets all the hype, but he’s not, by any means, the only player in the market.

Obviously there are significant limitations. Electric heavy-duty rigs can only do short hauls of a few hundred miles. But according to the Bureau of Transportation Studies:

Approximately 50 percent of the weight and 37 percent of the value of goods were moved less than 100 miles between origin and destination in 2015. 

So there is a need for this kind of vehicle. In an increasingly urbanized society, reducing noise and pollution in densely-populated areas will improve the quality of life for the citizenry. The exciting thing is it that this isn’t some wannabe technology, there are actual deliveries happening. Costs will have to come down, of course, but I expect we’ll see electric semis operating in an around cities within the next few years.

The diesel engine is a marvelous invention and one that dominates our transportation sector, and for good reason. Diesels can be twice as efficient as ordinary gasoline automotive motors and are unsurpassed in torque, pulling power, and longevity. And they are becoming increasingly cleaner while maintaining a fuel flexibility that gas engines can’t match.

But EVs are here to stay and demand for them will continue to increase. Done right, the shifting of some of our transport needs to electricity can result in a net overall reduction of chemical pollutants. A natural gas-fired power plant can produce electrical energy for consumption with great efficiency and with significantly reduced emissions. Add in solar, hydro, and even nuclear and the percentage of “clean” power in the grid can continue to increase. We all benefit from that.

I wonder if Townes Van Zandt would still stand out on the highway, though. That Freightliner e-whine is probably more like music to my ears than to his!


The latest thing in telecomm these days is 5G. This is the new standard in digital cellular networks and the 2019 roll-out is here. AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile are all either deploying 5G technology already or planning to by the end of the year.

“Faster” and “better” are the two words broadband users care most about, although I suspect “cheaper” still plays well. The techies tell us 5G will be faster and better, so who can argue with that?

These folks, it seems. There is resistance to this particularly technology and it is part of a larger concern over electrosmog, that is, excessive and harmful electromagnetic radiation.

Each day we are bathed in sunlight. Sunlight includes invisible waves like infrared (which we feel as heat) and ultraviolet (which cause sunburns and suntans) as well as the familiar rainbow spectrum of colors. All this stuff is electromagnetic (EM) radiation.

High-frequency electromagnetic waves include things like X-rays and gamma-rays which cause cell damage. These are known as “ionizing radiation” because the photons are energetic enough to remove electrons from atoms and molecules, creating ions. Extreme ultraviolet rays are also ionizing, but these have frequencies an order of magnitude higher than the UV in sunlight.

At frequencies lower than that of visible light (and infrared) we have the familiar radio waves and microwaves. Radio waves are very handy because they penetrate walls, thus we can receive radio and TV broadcasts indoors. That also means these waves pass through our bodies! So we are not only bathed in sunlight each day, we are bathed in radio waves as well, and while we can shade ourselves from sunlight we can’t from radio waves.

Radio waves can be enormous: signals from KNBR (680 kHz AM) are over 400 meters high! Microwaves are much smaller, between 1 millimeter and 1 meter. And microwaves can transmit information, just like radio waves, but they are limited by line-of-sight. Radio waves can diffract around barriers, hug the earth as ground waves, or even be bounced off the ionosphere for long-distance communication. Microwaves can’t, and are thus best used in things like wireless networks, garage door openers, radar, and other situations where distances are short.

Some people believe that we are saturating our world with electromagnetic radiation and that this causes health problems. We’ve all seen in our lifetime the spectacular increase in devices that send and receive EM, most particularly in the explosive growth of the mobile phone industry. Add in wi-fi and bluetooth and the huge variety of satellite broadcasts (everything from porn to GPS) and you’ve got a lot more EM radiation than in the good old days of just radio. Thus, electrosmog.

So, is this stuff bad for us? Probably not. After all, we have a living laboratory in front of us every day. By that I mean the human race. We are swimming in a sea of electromagnetism. The earth itself is an electromagnet with north and south poles! We’ve spent our entire lives with all sorts of EM radiation bouncing off us and passing through us. Even people who live near power lines, which create detectable (even with crude devices) EM fields, are no different than people who live further away. They don’t get sicker or have more cancers or anything like that.

So, why all the fuss? Other than the usual skepticism about new-fangled things, I think it is just the nature of the age. We are experiencing a lot of change and that change is happening fast. The rate of change is increasing—we are pressing on the accelerator rather than just maintaining our speed. So we get dizzy and we have to blame it on something, and it can be anything from GMOs to gangsta rap. People, I think, like to be beleaguered victims of a world gone mad, and the 5G phenomenon is tailor-made for that. Our big, evil corporate masters are dictating what goes in our neighborhoods and by golly we are going to fight back!

5G will require a greater number of antennae because of the low power and shorter range but they will be much smaller and more dispersed. Like smart meters, these things will be everywhere, and that ubiquity will only remind us of our helplessness. I suspect, however, that once users get the benefits of an improved service they’ll forget all about them. There was a time when power lines and telephone poles caused fear and alarm. People new to home wiring and electricity often would not stand near outlets for fear that the current would leak out and hurt them.

There are lots of things we encounter every day that present risk. I like to walk, and I have to tell you that many drivers are not very responsive to pedestrians. They often don’t notice them, and when they do they seem inconvenienced by their presence. And don’t get me started on parking lots! Walking is risky business. Driving is, too. Lots of people die or get hurt in vehicle accidents. I like to ski and to ride a mountain bike, and both have caused me significant injuries, yet I continue to take those risks.

There’s been a lot of hollering about vaccines and risk, yet vaccines are tens, hundreds, even thousands of times safer than routine surgeries and other everyday medical procedures. Vaccines are among the most tested substances in human history and the complication rates are vanishingly small, yet we have a vocal minority who insist they are too risky.

All of us on the earth right now have been exposed to ionizing radiation from nuclear tests and other sources of fallout (like Chernobyl). This is all new, our cavemen forbears did not face this risk. Yet, here we are, living and thriving. There’s an old adage worth repeating: it’s the dose that makes the poison. EM radiation, even the low-power non-ionizing stuff from our cellphones, just might be bad for us. In fact, too much of it probably is bad for us, just like too much of most things.

But on the list of risks electrosmog is way down there. I mean waaaaaayyyyyy down there! If the modern world fills you with worry, just remember all those things your mom told you. You know, like eat your vegetables and don’t drink too much and look both ways before crossing. Those will help get you through.

The Golden State

The forty-niners with their pickaxes and burros may be long gone from the California landscape, but folks still pull gold out of the ground here in the Golden State. There’s a mining company from Vancouver, B.C. called Kore that has two potential California projects on their website. One is on the east slope of the Sierras in Long Valley, Mono County. The other is in the Sonoran desert of Imperial County, not far from the Arizona line.

A million tons of earth contains ten pounds of gold. At least, that’s roughly the frequency at which gold is distributed in the crust. It’s not uniform, of course. Gold occurs in concentrated deposits of which the famous Mother Lode is an example.

These days gold mining is done on the surface in giant pits. Much safer for the miners and much more profitable for the companies. Here’s the interesting thing: they only need one gram of gold per ton of ore to make it work.

Here’s a gram of gold, the smallest investment you can make in bullion:


A ton of ore is about 13 cubic feet or roughly 100 gallons of rock. Can you picture that? Two of those big 55-gallon oil drums. Twenty 5-gallon paint buckets. That’s how much rock you have to process in order to get the amount of gold you see in the picture.

It doesn’t seem like a lot of rock, but the Imperial project mentioned above is supposed to produce around a million troy ounces which is thirty million grams! So that’s thirty million tons of ore to process. Three thousand million gallons of rock—that’s three billion—has to be crushed and treated on-site. Mostly the stuff is piled up on top of a clay layer and some plastic and sprinkled with a cyanide solution. That reacts with the gold and the effluent is collected and the gold bits extracted via some process like carbon adsorption. Cyanide heap leaching, as the process is called, also works for silver. Copper, nickel, and uranium are also extracted using heap leaching but with sulfuric acid instead of cyanide.

They have mining trucks that can carry 200-400 tons of ore in one load. I saw haulers like that when I toured the McLaughlin Mine, the tires alone are mind-boggling. That mine, located at the intersection of Napa, Yolo, and Lake Counties produced 3.5 million troy ounces (that’s over 100 million grams) from 1985-2002. There are 38 million tons of mill tailings from that project and that does not include the overburden and material that was moved but not processed. You can’t make low-grade ores work financially unless you can deal with massive quantities of them.

Speaking of massive quantities, one of the biggest open-pit mines in the world is just outside Salt Lake City. The Rio Tinto/Kennecott Bingham Canyon Mine is two-and-a-half miles wide and half a mile deep. That is a really big hole in the ground! It has been operating for 100 years.

If you can’t grow it then you have to mine it. Californians are lucky that much of the (non-fuel) mineral wealth of their state is located in remote places like deserts and high mountains. The extraction of minerals from the earth is usually not pretty. But if we want to stay golden we have to keep digging.