16 August 2019

Renewable Energy Versus Fossil Fuels

Welcome back. Although I’ve touched on renewable energy in earlier posts, it’s time I did more to promote its use and the conversion from fossil fuels (oil, coal, gas, nuclear). A recent study provided the incentive. 
U.S. energy consumption by source, 1950-2018
(from www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=39092).
Renewable Energy
Let’s review a bit. The Environmental Protection Agency lists the most common renewable energy technologies as solar, wind, biogas, geothermal, biomass, low-impact hydroelectricity and emerging technologies, such as wave and tidal power.

Global new investment in renewable energy sources, 2004-2018
(from www.cleanenergywire.org/news/germany-comes-5th-global-renewable-investment-ranking).
The benefits of renewable energy are well-documented by the Union of Concerned Scientists and others. They include no greenhouse gas with less global warming; reduced air pollution and improved public health; inexhaustible energy; jobs and other economic benefits; stable energy prices; and reliability and resilience.

But we can’t ignore the drawbacks, the major ones being higher upfront costs; intermittent availability (sun doesn’t always shine, wind doesn’t always blow, drought happens), which occasions the need for energy storage; and geographic limitations (not all areas are suitable).

Forecast of power generation capacity additions
(gigawatts) through 2030 by source

(from geoharvey.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/4-26-graph.jpg).
Energy Returned on Energy Invested
Renewable energy sources offer significant benefits over fossil fuels, yet a key factor driving the use of fossil fuels is their higher energy returned on energy invested. That refers to the ratio of the energy a resource will deliver to the energy it takes to obtain the resource.

The ratio of fossil fuels is generally calculated to be over 25:1 (e.g., the energy to obtain 1 barrel of oil will yield 25 barrels of energy or more); the ratio of renewable energy sources is typically less than 10:1.

That recent study I mentioned found those ratios should actually be much closer.

Fossil Fuel Energy Investment
The researchers, all affiliated with the UK’s University of Leeds, focused on the energy it takes to obtain fossil fuels.

They note that, as fossil fuels become more difficult to extract, the energy investment will increase and the ratio will fall. (While true, fracking has reduced the investment and interrupted a long decline.)

For a more immediate adjustment, they point out that fossil fuel ratios have been calculated based on the extracted resource. There has been no accounting for the energy required to transform the extracted resource into a finished fuel (e.g., gasoline, electricity). A more direct comparison with renewable energy sources should estimate the measurement of energy invested at the final stage, when energy enters the economy.

(In line with that adjustment, it would be better to describe the energy-return-on-investment ratio based on the energy it takes to deliver that energy than the energy it takes to obtain the resource. That, by the way, is how it’s described in Wikipedia.)

To estimate the magnitude of the difference, the researchers calculated the global time series (1995-2011) ratios for fossil fuels at both the extraction and final stages. The extraction stage ratios were on the order of 30:1; the final stage ratios were about 6:1 and trending downward.

Wrap Up
The researchers conclude that the energy-return-on-investment ratios of fossil fuels and renewables may be much closer than expected. Moreover, the ratio of fossil fuels will decline with a shrinking source.

Although more recent data on fossil fuel ratios would be desirable, the study findings coupled with the benefits of renewable energy suggest there’s no reason to wait to convert from fossil fuels wherever and whenever possible. Thanks for stopping by. 

Rooftop solar panels, Nottingham, UK (from www.solarpowerportal.co.uk/news/e.on_awards_solar_panel_cleaning_services_largest_ever_cleaning_contract).
Review of renewable energy benefits and resources:
Energy returned on energy invested:
Study of energy-returned-on-energy-invested ratio in Nature Energy journal: www.nature.com/articles/s41560-019-0425-z#article-info
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-07/uol-ffi071019.php

09 August 2019

Rollbacks, Science and FDA

President Trump’s false
or misleading statements
keep coming

Welcome back. President Trump says the U.S. has the cleanest air in the world; that it’s even gotten better since he’s been president. Regrettably, that claim must be added to the list of what, by now, must have reached 11,000 false or misleading statements by the president (see earlier post, So Many Lies).

After years of improvement in response to environmental regulations, air quality has gotten worse. There were more bad air days during the president’s first two years than in any of the four years before--15% more days with unhealthy air.

The decline in air quality shouldn’t be blamed on Trump, not yet anyway. But his attempts to rollback everything associated with Obama and promote fossil fuels don’t bode well for our future air quality.

Regulatory Reform
Building upon research from Harvard and Columbia law schools, the New York Times recently tallied 49 environmental rules that have been rolled back and 34 others for which rollbacks are in process.

New York Times tally of environmental rollbacks under the Trump administration through June 2019 (from www.statista.com/chart/18268/environmental-regulations-trump-administration/).
Regarding air quality, 10 rollbacks are complete, such as the 2015 rule that prohibited the use of hydrofluorocarbons in air-conditioners and refrigerators. (Hydrofluorocarbons are extremely potent greenhouse gases.) Twelve other air quality-related rollbacks are in progress.

This is not to imply that regulatory reform is unwarranted. As the Union of Concerned Scientists stated: While thoughtful updates to the regulatory system are much needed, most proposals touted as “regulatory reform” are actually intended to hamstring the ability of the federal government to issue science-based public health, safety, consumer, and environmental protections.

One noteworthy example is Trump’s Executive Order 13777, requiring agencies to establish task forces to recommend regulations for repeal, replacement or modification. Unfortunately, those task forces are often filled by political appointees, which in this administration have been burdened by potential conflicts of interest.

Science Takes a Hit
Instead of “Where’s the Beef?” from Wendy’s 1984 commercial, with the Trump administration, it’s where’s the science? (See earlier post, Marching for Science.) The Union of Concerned Scientists and others have documented the administration’s pervasive pattern of sidestepping science in critical decision making. Climate change stands out, of course, though it doesn’t stand alone.

One new area of concern was recently exposed by an investigative report in Science: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s compliance and enforcement actions have tumbled under Trump.

The FDA regulates clinical trials, food safety, medications, medical devices and more to protect public health. A key tool the FDA wields to flag violations and prevent dangerous drugs, foods and products from reaching consumers is a warning letter

The number of warning letters issued during Trump’s presidency dropped by about a third compared to Obama’s presidency. Warnings from certain FDA units and district offices have dropped even more. While the cause is unknown, the FDA suggests that other types of compliance and enforcement actions are ongoing. Agency watchers, including former FDA insiders, find the trend alarming.
The number of Food and Drug Administration warning letters and injunctions (through 22 May 2019) and Official Action Indicated (OAI) reports (through 22 Apr 2019) fell steeply from equivalent periods before President Trump’s inauguration (graphic by N. Desai from www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/07/exclusive-fda-enforcement-actions-plummet-under-trump).
Wrap Up
Out of respect for the office, I would love to give the president credit for doing something right. Since he and his administration are easy targets for criticism or concern in so many areas, it’s probably kindest if I don’t stray beyond environmental and the lack of science input and don’t go deeper into environmental. Thanks for stopping by.

TIME magazine article on changing air quality: time.com/5609569/us-air-quality-decline/
New York Times report on environmental rollbacks: www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/climate/trump-environment-rollbacks.html
Union of Concerned Scientists on Trump’s first years:

FDA enforcement actions: www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/07/exclusive-fda-enforcement-actions-plummet-under-trump
Article on FDA enforcement on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-07/aaft-iro070119.php

02 August 2019

Emerging Technologies

Welcome Back. Longtime readers of this blog know how tuned in I am to technology. Perhaps recounting my discovery of self-lowering toilet seats (Technology Update Photo Addendum) wasn’t an appropriate beginning, but over the years, I’ve highlighted many honest-to-goodness technology topics.

Today’s post is a first: Ten topics in one post. Blame it on the World Economic Forum, because I’ll be reviewing the Forum’s Top 10 Emerging Technologies 2019 report.

Searching for the next technology breakthrough (photo from campustechnology.com/articles/2019/04/25/6-key-ed-tech-developments-on-the-horizon.aspx).
World Economic Forum Report
The World Economic Forum describes itself as the international organization for public-private cooperation. Established in 1971 and headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, the Forum is an independent, impartial organization that engages the foremost political, business and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.

The Forum’s report was prepared by an international steering committee of leading technology experts, who also sought input from other experts. Technologies were evaluated based on their potential to produce major benefits to societies and economies; alter established ways of doing things; attract researchers, companies or investors; and make significant inroads in several years.

The Top 10 Emerging Technologies

Bioplastics--Shifting to biodegradable plastics would alleviate many of the environmental problems arising from the millions of tons of plastics produced each year; however, current biodegradable plastics lack strength and the visual characteristics of standard plastics. Look for breakthrough products that use cellulose or lignin from plant waste.

Social Robots--Robots are becoming common in industry and in different aspects of our lives. Look for advances in artificial intelligence to continue improving their ability to serve as assistants and even friends, recognizing voices, faces and emotions with eye contact and expanded social and emotional intelligence.

Eldercare (sort of) robot from 2012 movie Robot & Frank (from
Metalenses--The difficulty of reducing the size of glass lenses has interfered with efforts to reduce the size of cellphones, computers and other devices. Advances in physics have resulted in smaller, lighter metalenses. Look for further miniaturization of laboratory and consumer products and possible improvements in optical fibers.

Disordered Proteins as Drug Targets--Intrinsically disordered proteins are a class of proteins known to cause diseases, including cancer. Because they lack a fixed or ordered structure like conventional proteins, they are difficult to treat. A recent breakthrough showed a way to stop the structural transformation long enough for drugs to take effect. Look for improved patient treatments.

Smarter Fertilizers--Recent advances have promoted controlled release of fertilizers tailored to specific crops and growing conditions. Delivery efficiency and yields have increased, while environmental impact has decreased. Look for fertilizers to incorporate new sources of nitrogen and microorganisms that boost nutrient uptake.

Collaborative Telepresence--Video conferencing is not new, but with advances in augmented and virtual reality, coupled with 5G networks and advanced sensors, look for remote interactions that feel physically real, from handshakes to robotic medical practice.

Advanced Food Tracking and Packaging--Globally, food poisoning affects some 600 million people each year with deaths exceeding 400,000. Technologies are addressing two aspects of the problem. Blockchain technology is being applied in tracking food items through the supply chain, allowing rapid identification of the source of food poisoning. In addition, sensors to monitor food quality are being developed and added to both bulk and individual food packaging. Look for continued advances in tracking and packaging.

Example of packaging sensor for monitoring food freshness (from www.elsevier.com/physical-sciences-and-engineering/chemistry/journals/new-chemistry-research/smart-food-packaging).
Safer Nuclear Reactors--Nuclear power can contribute to the reduced use of fossil fuels and reduced carbon dioxide. New fuels and reactors are being developed that can greatly increase the safely of nuclear power. The fuels are more resilient, and if they overheat, produce little or no hydrogen. Look for continued improvements and trials.

DNA Data Storage--Current data-storage systems are high-energy users and are reaching their capacity to store the quantities of data we generate. Alternatives to hard drives are actively being explored. Look for breakthroughs in DNA-based data storage, a low-energy alternative with a huge data capacity.

Utility-Scale Storage of Renewable Energy--Electricity from renewable sources, especially wind and solar, has increased substantially, yet storage of energy when sun or wind are lacking has been a hindrance. Although alternatives are being pursued, look for lithium-ion batteries to dominate storage technology, with advances producing 4 to 8 hours of energy.

Thanks for stopping by.

The World Economic Forum: www.weforum.org/about/world-economic-forum
The Top 10 Emerging Technologies 2019 report: www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Top_10_Emerging_Technologies_2019_Report.pdf
Write-up on report: www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/07/these-are-the-top-10-emerging-technologies-of-2019/

26 July 2019

Head Tilt for Dominance

Welcome back. Years ago, in a blog post that warned scientists to do a better job at garnering the public’s trust, I wrote:

All this time I thought people didn’t trust science and scientists because of lobbyists, biased or clueless media, politics and contrarians. Nope. It’s because scientists are cold fish…scientists may be respected by the public but not necessarily trusted; and it’s all because scientists are not perceived as warm (from Trust a Scientist).

Seeking ways to assist not only warn scientists, I then blogged about an older study on facial evaluation; in essence, certain facial features tend to convey trust. I described how those researchers developed models for representing facial trustworthiness and dominance (from Trust a Scientist Addendum).

Judgments of 300 emotionally neutral faces found that certain facial features tend to convey trust (from www.pnas.org/content/105/32/11087.full).
I wasn’t suggesting plastic surgery or other such tweaks. I just thought scientists might use a mirror to practice certain facial expressions or use makeup to raise their inner eyebrows. Or maybe not.

From Trust to Dominance
Today, instead of trust, I’m going for dominance. And this pertains to everyone, even those who failed science in school.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia demonstrated that the perception of dominance need not focus on facial evaluation. In a series of tests involving over 1,500 participants, they found head movements--tilting one’s head downward with eyes looking forward--increased the perception of dominance.

Tests of Perceived Dominance
For one online test with 101 participants, the researchers generated avatars with neutral facial expressions in one of three head positions, tilted up or down 10 degrees or looking straight ahead.

The participants judged the dominance of each avatar image, rating their agreement with statements including “This person would enjoy having control over others” and “This person would be willing to use aggressive tactics to get their way.”

Avatars with downward head tilt were rated most dominant.

In a similar online test with images of humans instead of avatars, 570 participants had the same results. An important additional finding from that test was that the part of the face around the eyes and eyebrows was both necessary and sufficient to produce the dominance effect. 

Images of avatars (top row) and humans (other rows) with neutral facial expressions and heads looking straight ahead (center images) or tilted 10 degrees (from journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797619838762).
Other tests showed that the angle of the eyebrows drove the effect. Tilting the head downward can have the same effect on perception as lowering one’s eyebrows. The eyebrows appear more “V shaped,” even if they have not moved from a neutral position.

The researchers point out that “Brow Lowerer” is Upper Face Action Unit 4 in the Facial Action Coding System, which I blogged about in Facial Expressions Addendum

Upper Face Action Units (AU) from the Facial Action Coding System for human expressions (from what-when-how.com/face-recognition/facial-expression-recognition-face-recognition-techniques-part-1/).
Wrap Up
Clearly, social judgments about faces are derived not only from facial shape and musculature but also from head movements.

The researchers are continuing to pursue the topic, exploring whether the effects might extend beyond perception of dominance to how we interpret facial expressions of emotion. They’re hoping to define practical implications for our everyday social interactions.

Appearing dominant is a good start, at least for some of us. Thanks for stopping by.

Study of head tilt perception of dominance in Psychological Science journal: journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797619838762
News release on study from Assoc. for Psychological Science: www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/head-tilt-dominance.html

19 July 2019

Posture Affects Taste

Welcome back. Do you want to eat less? Eat standing up. Do you have guests for dinner and the food didn’t turn out right? Have them eat standing up. Do your kids balk at eating veggies? Let them eat the veggies standing up. 

Standing while eating at home
(from recipes.timesofindia.com).
What’s all this standing to eat about? It turns out that posture, specifically sitting versus standing, affects how the taste of food is perceived. At least that’s what researchers from the University of South Florida and Louisiana State University found.

Why Does Posture Matter?
We normally evaluate food with our visual, olfactory, gustatory, haptic and auditory senses. To these five senses, the researchers added a sixth. They demonstrated that our vestibular sense, the one responsible for balance, posture and spatial orientation, also plays a major role.

Standing causes physical stress and subdues taste buds. As gravity pulls blood lower in the body, the heart works harder to pump blood upward. This stimulates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, a major neuroendocrine system, and produces increased concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol. These reactions reduce sensory sensitivity, impacting taste evaluation, food temperature perception and overall consumption.

Standing versus Sitting Tests
The researchers conducted a series of tests to confirm the importance of the vestibular sense.

In one, they had 350 participants rate the taste of pita chips. Participants who were standing gave a lower rating than participants who sat in a padded chair.

In a second test, they had participants eat bite-size brownies, baked locally and considered pleasant tasting. Participants who ate the brownies while sitting rated them most delicious. The baker then made a new batch, adding extra salt to make the taste less pleasant. Participants who ate the saltier brownies while standing didn’t notice. They rated the brownies more favorable than participants who ate the brownies while sitting.

In another test, participants had to sample a fruit snack while carrying a shopping bag. The intent was to simulate what occurs when a shopper tries samples at a grocery store or in a food court. Sitting and standing participants both found the added weight made the food taste worse.

To test the effect of posture on food temperature perception and consumption, participants drank hot coffee. Those sitting found the coffee to be hotter than did those standing, yet they drank more, which suggests the stress of standing suppressed their appetite. Standing rather than sitting while eating food also leads to lesser amounts consumed.

Standing while eating at a restaurant (from
Wrap Up
The researchers are affiliated with university marketing departments. They judge that their study findings have conceptual implications for expanding sensory marketing as well as the effects of sensory systems on food taste perceptions.

Of particular interest are the practical implications of standing while eating for the environmental design of restaurants, retail and other food services. Of course, one could also stand just to eat less. Thanks for stopping by.

Study of vestibular sensations and food taste in Journal of Consumer Research: academic.oup.com/jcr/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/jcr/ucz018/5488173
Article on study on ScienceDaily website: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/06/190607091031.htm
Wikipedia description of hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypothalamic%E2%80%93pituitary%E2%80%93adrenal_axis