I wrote a story about the future of crop science that's printed in the June issue of Popular Science. When I was doing the research, the big question I wanted to ask was this: "How can we take the most important agricultural crops and make them more sustainable and adapted to climate change?"
I suppose there are a lot of ways to define "most important", but I went with the crops that feed the most people. Wheat, rice, and corn account for more than 50% of all the calories consumed on Earth. So those are the plants I looked at. And that's where I ran into a surprise. Scientists had some really interesting, concrete suggestions for how to prepare wheat and rice for a changing world. But with corn, they took a different tack. Basically, the scientists said the best thing to do with corn was use less corn.
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Large yields and high calorie content have made corn the most popular and most heavily subsidized crop in America. That’s an increasingly urgent problem. In 2010, corn production consumed nine million tons of fertilizer and led to greenhouse-gas emissions equivalent to 42 million tons of CO2—and corn isn’t even something we can easily eat. “The digestibility of unprocessed corn to humans isn’t very high,” says Jerry Hatfield, a plant physiologist with the USDA. “We have to put it through processing of some sort, whether that happens in a factory or an animal.” Set those problems aside, and a deal-breaker remains: modern corn is more sensitive to heat than any other major crop, and attempts to create drought- and heat-resistant corn through genetic modification are still unproven.
Would you like a signed copy of Before the Lights Go Out, my new book about the future of energy?
The book comes out on April 10th and pre-orders have already started shipping. Between now and the end of April, you can earn a fun prize for telling other people about my book.
1) Tell people on your social networks that you're reading Before the Lights Go Out. This applies to Facebook, G+, or Twitter. When you talk about it, be sure to tag me in the post—@maggiekb1 on Twitter, Maggie Koerth-Baker on Facebook and G+—so I know that you mentioned the book.
In return, I'll send you a sticker with my signature and personal thank-you. You can put it in your printed book and create an instant signed copy. Or, if you're an e-book reader, you can put the sticker on ... something else. Maybe your e-book reader. Maybe your pet/baby. Either way, it's yours!
UPDATE: I had another part to this, offering cookies to people who would write reviews of the book. It was meant to be fun. But, talking to a few people, I think that cuts too close to bribery. So I'm canceling that part of the contest.Read the rest
Join me tomorrow at 11:00 am Eastern for a live chat with editors from Treehugger.com.
They'll be talking with me about my new book, Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us.
The key message I want people to take away from this book: Our energy problems (and our energy solutions) are about more than just swapping out fossil fuels and replacing them with renewable resources. Instead, what matters more is the infrastructures we live with, which dictate how we use energy, where we get it from, and how much we consume. If you want a more sustainable energy future, you'll need to focus on infrastructure. This isn't just about sources—it's about systems.
Artificial hearts are amazing, but flawed. They wear out quickly and, even today, they don't work at all unless the transplantee is hooked up to an external air compressor 24-7. That doesn't make for a great quality of life. In fact, according to a story in Popular Science, written by Dan Baum, the first man to ever use an artificial heart asked his doctors (repeatedly) if they couldn't just let him die.
And yet, many people would still like to avoid dying of heart failure. So how do you solve the problem?
As Baum explains it, the flaws in artificial hearts are all tied back to a key issue: Trying to make them beat like a natural heart. So, what if an artificial heart didn't have to beat in order to do its job?
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Meeko the calf stood nuzzling a pile of hay. He didn’t seem to have much appetite, and he looked a little bored. Every now and then, he glanced up, as though wondering why so many people with clipboards were standing around watching him.
Fourteen hours earlier, I’d watched doctors lift Meeko’s heart from his body and place it, still beating, in a plastic dish. He looked no worse for the experience, whisking away a fly with his tail as he nibbled, demonstrably alive—though above his head, a monitor showed a flatlined pulse. I held a stethoscope to his warm, fragrant flank and heard, instead of the deep lub-dub of a heartbeat, what sounded like a dentist’s drill or the underwater whine of an outboard motor.
In times of tight government budgets, there's a temptation to lawmakers to leave the expensive job of scientific research to corporations. I understand that urge. I can sympathize with it. But I also think that it's perilously wrong-headed.
Privately-funded science—that is, usually, science done by corporations—is important. And it can't all be written off as inherently biased, either. The trouble, though, is that corporations have special concerns that influence what scientific research they undertake, and how they do it. In general, today, what they focus on is short-term stuff. They improve existing products. They figure out how to make nifty technology work in the real world.
What they don't do is long-term, big-picture science. This is the stuff that shapes our futures—and the futures of private corporations. If we abandon public funding for science, then we put all of that at risk.
Case in point: Since 2003, Minnesota has funded research on energy through the University of Minnesota's Initiative for Renewable Energy & the Environment (IREE). The scientists involved with this program do low-profile, but extremely important work, developing technologies (and methods for using those technologies) that affect every level of our energy systems. Right now, they're involved in everything from developing portable systems that turn farm waste into biofuel, to figuring out better ways to help houses use less energy. They're even collecting the complicated economic and physics data that will help us better understand the full environmental impacts of different fuels, batteries, and other energy sources and technologies. In the course of writing Before the Lights Go Out, my new book about the future of energy, I interviewed several of these scientists and learned a lot about the research they do. Read the rest
At approximately 11:00 am Eastern time (15 minutes from now as I type this), the Earth will come into contact with the largest Coronal Mass Ejection since 2005—a huge burst of charged particles and magnetic fields that exploded off the surface of the sun Sunday night.
Scientists have been tracking it as it headed our way. In fact, intrepid astronomy reporter Lee Billings contacted me this morning to tell me that ejection had just passed our Advanced Composition Explorer satellite, which is why we have such a precise estimate of when it would hit Earth. Despite the size of this CME, Billings says it probably won't cause any major damage. However, a larger CME that hit us with less warning very well could be a huge problem. That's because CME's can interfere, to varying degrees, with radio communications, GPS signals, and lots of other electronic stuff that we've come to rely on. What's more, Billings says, our warning system is aging fast. That ACE satellite, for instance, has enough fuel to survive to 2024, but it's equipment is old enough that it's likely to fail at any time.
Lee has written a great piece on Coronal Mass Ejections and the very real risks they pose to modern technology over at Popular Mechanics. It's a great breakdown of what CME's can do and what we do to prepare for them that manages to get the risks right, without becoming too hyperbolic and apocalyptic-y. It's 10:59 AM now. Happy CME!
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A geomagnetic storm produces dangerous electrical currents in a manner analogous to a moving bar magnet raising currents in a coil of wire.
If you've paid much attention to policy in general, you won't be too surprised by what I'm about to tell you about energy policy. Many of our well-meaning public programs use tax dollars for the near-exclusive benefit of the wealthy—the group of people who need those shared funds the least.
Today I spoke at "What Will Turn Us On in 2030?", a conference about the short-term future of energy in the United States. At the conference, I met Lisa Margonelli, director of the Energy Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation. Margonelli has spent the last year researching the effects of high gasoline prices on middle class and working class families. (I'll be posting some more about that project later.) Along the way, she noticed some serious problems with the way we're currently trying to change energy systems in the U.S.—problems that actually endanger our ability to make real, long-term change.
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The green policies put in place by the Bush and Obama administrations are not only not aimed at the middle class; they’re benefitting the wealthy at precisely the moment that high gas prices have slammed the lower middle class.
Consider the flashiest green support for consumers at the moment: tax credits for the purchase of electric cars and solar panels. Buy an electric car (more than $40,000) or a solar array (more than $20,000) and get a tax credit. But most American families making the median income (about $50,000) spend more per year on their old used cars and fuel ($7,900) than they do on taxes ($6,000).
Why care about liquid fuel?
There’s a reason we use different forms of energy to do different jobs, and it’s not because we’re all just that fickle. Instead, we’ve made these decisions based on some combination of what has (historically, anyway) given us the best results, what is safest, what is most efficient, and what costs us the least money.
In a nutshell, that’s why liquid fuel is so valuable. So far, it’s the clear winner when we need energy for transportation—especially air transportation and heavy, long-distance shipping—because it allows you to stuff a lot of energy into relatively small amount of storage space, and easily refill on the go. There are other options, of course, like electricity. And that can work quite well, depending on what you’re trying to do. Eventually, we may find ourselves in a world where liquid fuel is no longer the best option. But we aren’t there yet. And for those forms of transport that take us into the air or move our belongings very long distances, we aren't likely to get there for a good long time.
That's why I care about liquid fuel, and why I'm interested in the future of biofuels. Yes, biofuels do have a future. But what that future will be depends on whether we can control for some very messy variables. Here, in three points, are the big things you need to know about biofuel.
1. Corn ethanol really is flawed. But maybe not as much as you think.
Biofuel is a nice, round word encompassing a lot of tricky, little, oddly shaped dots. Read the rest
To get off nuclear power, Germany plans to make its electricity system 80% renewable by 2050. That's not going to be easy. Just to reach the first milestone of that goal—35% renewable capacity by 2020—the country will have to build 2,800 miles of new, high-voltage transmission lines. Although, one significant thing missing from this story: How many miles of transmission lines Germany would have normally built during that time. Even so, watch this space for financing debates, NIMBY wars, and what promises to be some really fascinating problem solving. (Via Michael Noble and thanks to Chris Baker!) Read the rest
It looks like Boeing will be the main competitor for Space X in the race to see what U.S. company will provide the commercial space flight services that NASA eventually plans to rely on.
Space X has its Dragon capsule, and Boeing is developing a new capsule system, called the CST-100. That capsule would ride into space under the power of an Atlas V rocket, an engineering descendant of the Atlas rockets that carried the first four American astronauts to space half a century ago. Read the rest
Don't muck around in the affairs of planets that are less technologically advanced than yours. Despite how often it gets ignored, Star Trek's Prime Directive is a pretty nice attempt to take a universe brimming with life and figure out how to interact with it in an ethical way.
Unfortunately, the Prime Directive isn't terribly nuanced.
How do we relate to alien life that's as, or more, advanced than us? What if alien life is bacteria—do we still have to leave its home planet alone? How do we explore the galaxy without spreading—or picking up—any deadly diseases? The Prime Directive can't really help you here. That's why scientists from NASA and the SETI Institute are boldly going where no bureaucracies (real or fictional) have gone before—drawing up the safety protocols we Earthlings will use as we explore new worlds, and the social and ethical guidelines we'll turn to if we ever do find life on other planets. Read the rest