Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Some thoughts, from an Engineer

Excerpt of an email from WM Bertolet, Fort Myers:

The USA faces a crisis that imperils the nation's economy and the planet's ecology. We have
forgotten about efficiency and durability. We have a pervasive irresponsible throw away mentality which ignores the precepts of quality and conservation and a woefully misguided administration.

There must be a change towards efficient and durable products offering quality and longevity.

Prime example. Detroit builds shoddy monstrous plastic gas guzzlers that are, by design and
marketing plan, throw away junk by the last coupon in the payment book. The USA has never
developed a viable diesel automobile. Incredibly, five states prohibit the registration of diesel
automobiles thus politically discouraging diesel imports.

If only one third of the cars on American highways were diesel we would not have to import one
drop of petroleum. That's efficiency. Diesels have service lives measured in millions of miles.
That's durability.

Appliances built to price are short lived energy hogs doomed to an early death from mechanical
failure or rust.

New buildings, both commercial and residential, have design service lives shorter than their
mortgages and are dependant on artificial ventilation and illumination.

Our reliance upon the automobile, truck and airplane is woefully inefficient and wasteful. Fast
and convenient mass transit systems are all but absent in north America. We have no bullet trains let alone passenger trains. We depend upon air and highway transport networks with prohibitively high fuel consumption per seat or ton mile. Why the 3 ton SUV with driver only?

Railroads can lug a ton of freight over 400 miles on a gallon of diesel oil, ships and barges are
even more efficient yet The US killed the railroads and merchant marine with government and
unions after WW2.

Intelligently deployed nuclear power is the only viable technology for present power demands.
Example France.

The severely limited energy densities for solar, wind, wave, and thermal differential energy
technologies preclude practical nationwide application, particularly for urban areas. For an
isolated dwelling, they are feasible but costly to build and maintain. They simply cannot be
scaled upwards to accommodate cities or a power grid.

Of the future energy technologies oil from algae is the most promising. The feedstock is waste,
no arable land is required, the growth rate is explosive, days compared to months, and the yield
per acre potentially 100 times that of any other bio source, the extraction of diesel oil
requires only pressing, and the pulp remaining is fodder, fuel pellets or fertilizer. The Salton
Sea area could supply the nation.

Mature technology exists to address all these issues. Buildings cars and appliances should be a
once in lifetime purchases designed for maximum efficiency and durability rather than throw away life cycles.

Inefficiency, lack of durability, and the throw away mentality exacerbate pollution.

The smallest and most basic measures which could be implemented instantly are overlooked in our aura of waste. In Europe the supermarkets sell shopping bags and they are not inexpensive so most folks carry reusable fabric mesh bags. In the USA plastic bags which are made from petroleum, are, despite $130.00 per barrel oil, still cheaper than biodegradable paper bags, and both are given away. Waste.

Many items are sold in plastic or foil packaging that exceeds the cost of the product within. It
would seem that in such cases regulation requiring the product to equal or exceed the value of
the package would have practical results. The fast food ketchup pouch would fatten to the point
where one pack would take the place of the three or four required to drench an order of fries.

The aptly named clear plastic "clamshell" packs so much a part of retail marketing for their
pegboard product display and theft-reducing bulk could just as easily be paper packed to the joy
of anyone who has fought to open one using scissors or knives.

The empty pack will be with us for eternity.

Recycling of plastics, including synthetic fibers, is mostly energy negative due to the variety
of materials leading to cross contamination. Even the familiar clear beverage containers must
have the cap retainer rings, the label film sleeve or the ink removed prior to shredding.
Plastics are a particular nuisance and curse in this regard as they are very long lived. Landfills of disposable diapers will take centuries, if ever, to degrade.

Fortunately glass, metals, nuclear fuel rods, and paper are energy positive or neutral to

Products with combinations of many materials, such as motor vehicles, are hardly worth recycling as the costs to separate the various materials either manually pre-processing or mechanically after shredding tend to be prohibitive. Magnetic separation can pluck out the ferritic alloys but the other metals such as copper and aluminum are more difficult to select and the remaining amalgam of shredded plastics, glass, paint and fiber is valueless bulk.

Dump the politicians and the fruitcake "scientists" with their past failures and future dreams.

Bring on the engineers for real and immediate solutions..

That covers the practical, now to the political.

The oil market is worldwide and highly competitive, fully subject to supply and demand. Big
numbers, certainly. Conspiracies and cartels, no. So who’s making the big money? The countries
that produce crude oil. Crude represents more than half of the cost of each gallon of gasoline
sold. Federal, state and local taxes represent another fifth.

In 1998, a recession in Asia created an oil glut. Prices plunged to historic lows (near $10 a
barrel), and American drivers reaped the benefits, with gas dipping below $1 per gallon. Within
ten years we are facing a tenfold increase in cost, or, conversely and far more accurately a
tenfold devaluation of our currency.

We are bankrupting the nation with terrifying rapidity.

Given an intelligent balance of eco-priorities global warming issues could be ameliorated with
the funds saved by common sense energy policies.

Engineering cannot resolve political problems, revolution could. The blame lies 100% in