Archive for February, 2012

Better Living: Science, Technology and the Environment

“Better living through chemistry,” a twist on a DuPont Chemicals advertising slogan from the early 20th century, has since been applied to a number of miracles of chemistry, from prescription drugs to plastics. When the slogan was generated in 1935, we were blissfully unaware of the perils of DDT, of the ozone-eating potential of chlorofluorocarbons, and of the sinister effects of a number of chemical compounds that we are just beginning to understand. Now, some might use the term sarcastically; chemistry has, indeed, enabled the luckier portions of the world to combat sickness and disease, to enjoy a great variety of foods and drinks, to purchase an ever-expanding supply of materials that prevent eggs from sticking to our pans and stains sticking to our clothes. In using chemistry to better our lives, though, we have contributed to a steady flow of toxins and pollutants into our environment.

Is chemistry the villain in this story? In many ways, yes, but it also has the potential to be the hero. That will be the theme of this weekly post: the dual nature of science and technology in our society. Each week I will explore a current issue related to the interface between technology and the environment, from the discovered negative health effects of various chemicals to the latest news on solar cell technology.

For this first post, I want to comment briefly on the most recent speaker in our Chemistry Department’s lecture series. This afternoon, we were lucky to have with us Dr. Richard Engler of the EPA, who gave a presentation on the ideas behind green chemistry and its potential to revolutionize our pursuit of Better Living.

Green Chemistry, which developed in the 1990s, is a philosophy rather than a discipline, and can be implemented in any field from materials chemistry to organic synthesis. It is defined by the American Chemical Society as the “design, development, and implementation of chemical products and processes to reduce or eliminate the use and generation of substances hazardous to human health and the environment.” In essence, green chemistry means doing chemistry better – with less waste, more efficient processes, and a reduction or elimination of toxic materials. Green chemistry is safer, and in many ways it is more cost effective, but what the discipline strives for overall is sustainability. Engler defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” I think that’s a principle we could all agree on.

In addition to remedying our chemical processes, green chemistry has the potential to repair chemistry’s reputation so the “better living” phrase can be reclaimed without sarcasm. Dr. Engler discussed the recent trend in “chemical free” products, and even showed us an image of a “chemical free” chemistry set, pictured above. The past decades have taught our society to be afraid of chemicals. In reality, as Dr. Engler said, the only “chemical free” place is the “vacuum of space.” We have always been stuck with chemicals – in fact, we are made of them. Our path towards a greener society does not involve forsaking chemicals, but in redefining our relationship with them. I hope to shed some light on that journey.

To learn more about green chemistry, visit the American Chemical Society website!

Until next time!

Sharon Hartzell

Image Source

February 10th, 2012

A SEAC-y Semester Begins!

If you are looking for a way to get way to get directly involved with sustainability on campus, SEAC – the Student Environmental Action Coalition at William & Mary – is just getting started for the semester. We are working on several exciting projects, and the time is now to add yours to the list!

SEAC’s campaign structure enables us to reach into all aspects of sustainability on campus, and allows diverse ideas and initiatives to flourish. Our Stop the Surry Coal Plant Campaign has been working with local folks in Surry County and with activists across the state to combat a proposal to build a coal-fired power plant in the town of Dendron. There are a few high-impact public hearings coming up in the next few weeks, so stay tuned and find out how you can help! Surry meets on Monday nights in the SEAC office, which is (delightfully furnished and) located in the campus center. our Gardens campaign has been working hard on the campus gardens, and are currently planning for an herb garden. They meet every Wednesday at 6:30 in the SEAC office, and hold work days in the gardens on Sunday at 3:00! Biodiversity meets on Tuesdays at 6:00, and is continuing their work to protect the College Woods from development (Remember the bamboo tree in Swem last spring? Yep, that was Biodive! Recycling, which meets at 9:00 on Tuesdays, has put together a thrilling proposal for a Free Room in the SEAC office that would promote the three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle) and foster a sense of community on campus. Check back for store hours! Lastly, if you are interested in working on ideas for a project, chatting about environmental or social justice issues, or adding your design sense to the SEAC office, come to SEACspace on Thursday evenings between 7:00 and 10:00…

…Which brings us to projects! While much of our work is done within the Campaigns, SEAC members are also putting together project proposals that range from building a structure by the gardens to to developing community art projects. We welcome your ideas both at SEACspace and at our Big SEAC Meetings, which take place Monday nights at 8:30 in Washington 223.

SEAC operates on consensus basis, which means that all decisions are approved by the group as a whole. Basically, we’ll talk ideas out until we come to a conclusion that works for everyone, which, in my opinion, helps to foster a sense of shared vision and purpose. Just as decisions are made by the whole community, so are ideas, and so are actions! SEAC is what you make of it, so come out to a meeting and make it yours.

Sharon Hartzell

February 9th, 2012

Wordless Wednesday

“No Pollution Please” by Chris Lamprianidis, winner of the CoolClimate Art Contest

February 8th, 2012

How “Green Technology” Took Away my Blues about “Gang Green”

The disappointing demise of my New York Jets this NFL season led me to the scintillating situation of watching my local PBS station one Sunday afternoon over winter break. Mired in depression, it did not help that a certain state school two hours up the interstate (who I had come to loathe for obvious reasons) had purchased an hour of airtime to show an October 19th, 2011 talk by GreenTech Automotive Chairman and 2009 Virginia Gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe at their Miller Center for Public Policy. Now, I know for a fact that if this talk were held at the College the crowd would have been filled with plenty of young, eager faces interested in sustainability and what the successful businessman had to say. At this particular event on the Charlottesville grounds, you would not be able to find more seniors at a Lions Club meeting. Maybe they filmed this in a nursing home, who knows? (Click here for the talk).

His speech touted his company’s purchase of a Chinese line of electric cars called MyCar and how these kinds of vehicles can help America become independent from oil-producing countries and bring jobs to the US. McAuliffe also tossed the concept of being “green” around, and while that came as no surprise in a talk entitled “Green Transportation,” the way in which he used the term reflected a concerned businessman rather than a concerned steward of the Earth. Or at least that’s what I thought.

The former Democratic National Committee Chairman mentioned one stat that satisfies his belief that the cost to charge a car would not put a burden on power plants and its fuel, which in over half of America is coal. “80% of Americans drive less than 40 miles a day.” On the MyCar’s smallest battery pack, 40 miles is the average distance the car can go on one charge. Thus, an eight-mile commute could get up to two people to work and back for one workweek before this particular car needed a charge.

Thankfully, someone in the lackluster crowd did not completely nod off and asked a question during the discussion that followed about the environmental impact of electric cars. Instead of wondering what a significant shift towards electric cars would do to lessen CO2 emissions from gasoline-powered cars, the woman questioned what the environmental impact of the car itself would be, particularly with its lithium battery. McAuliffe stumbled through his answer (fast forward the video linked above to around the 25:30 mark to hear the question and response):

“I would say that maybe 10-15 years ago there would have been a credible argument for that. Most of the lithium we get…is from China. I have toured the lithium facility myself…today it is not an issue. There is always the question of disposal, but the batteries that we have now today probably will last you at least five years, and we will have a program obviously at the end of those five years.”

Well, obviously, there is a lack of clarity here in the answer.

Is lithium safe to mine? While a chemist could explain it better than I, the element, found terrestrially in minerals but too reactive to be found in nature on its own, is able to bond in an ionic manner with other elements. That means it is true that lithium leaches into groundwater and for all intents and purposes interacts with nature.

Here is usually the part that I roll out a list of studies describing how some fish important to some far-away eco-system is losing its population due to the exposure to lithium, right? Or that lithium in groundwater causes higher counts of disease in some areas?

Well, surprisingly there is some good news to report about the impacts of lithium itself on the environment (as for the process of physically changing the land and thus the way water flows on it, the usual problems associated with any mining remain). A study just released in October of 2011 to be published in the Journal of Cleaner Production claims that the environmental impacts of producing lithium carbonate batteries (from the mines to the assembly line) do not trump those processes involved with creating internal combustion engine vehicles. Only in a future that relies on seawater as the major source, rather than ores or natural brines, will the extraction of lithium become a significant environmental problem. Yes, the report even allows for a large increase in the production of electric vehicles (This report is based on a large set of statistical projections. Bored? Take a shot at it: Stamp, Anne. “Environmental impacts of a transition toward e-mobility: the present and future role of lithium carbonate production.” Journal of Cleaner Production. 23:1, 2012. 104-112). Furthermore, the results from a 2011 study conclusively state that lithium does not bioaccumulate (unlike an element like Mercury, and anyone who has taken any kind of environmental class the past five years at the College knows about this) and is of low toxicity for most living beings (Aral and Vecchio-Sadus. “Lithium: Environmental Pollution and Health Effects.” Encyclopedia of Environmental Health. 2011. 499-508).

On the recycling front, a process that McAuliffe will “obviously” set up within five years, the outlook is significantly less bright: “Recycling, as another potential future source for lithium and as a means to close the resource cycle, is currently implemented only rarely” (Stamp).

Reusing lithium consistently would require a standardization of battery design and a recycling process in order for the power source to contain effective lithium. As with all natural resources in a globalized world (think oil), expect the price to be volatile as demand for the element exponentially increases in the next decade (Gaines and Nelson. “Lithium-Ion Batteries: Examining Material Demand and Recycling Issues.” Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, IL. U.S. Department of Energy. 2010).

Plenty of uncertainty surrounds the future of lithium recycling, yet the overriding point of all of this is that compared to oil, coal, and natural gas, lithium is the most likely natural element used as a power source to be regenerated relatively quickly for multiple uses.

If McAuliffe has his way, just as many people will own a lithium battery electric car as the number of people who had this song on CD or cassette in 1991. This means that while the current situation appears promising (Hooray! This was NOT another depressing blog post about the negatives of mining), a significant increase in the demand will be sure to test the limits of these positive findings. In the meantime, I’ll take anything that clouds up the last few weeks of 2011 for my New York Jets.

-Jamison Shabanowitz

February 6th, 2012

Eco Policy Blog: Frack Off

President Obama, in the State of the Union address, promised to open federal lands to “fracking” to create 600,000 jobs. Not only will fracking solve unemployment, but there is enough gas to fuel our country for 100 years. What does this new support mean for land within state jurisdiction?

Fracking is a nickname for hydraulic fracturing – a technique to remove natural gas from rock by injecting high-pressured liquid and chemicals into the rock to break it up. The environmental concerns with the practice revolve around clean drinking water, air pollution and, now, earthquakes. The EPA is studying whether fracking has contaminated groundwater. Earthjustice has a map of high-profile “fraccidents” in the U.S. you can see here.

In pursuance of federalism, states have been fracking for several years on state and private land. But the President’s announcement comes in the midst of heated debate within state jurisdictions who are considering fracking bans, how to regulate and whether wastes should cross state lines. Obama’s new support of the industry could influence what state lawmakers do.

There are already examples of this happening. As New York considers lifting a three year fracking ban, some lawmakers perceive Obama’s support as a directive to go ahead on state land that is currently off-limits. On the other hand, the President’s remarks could be worrying enough to get a reaction where there was none before. Students in Mount Pleasant, Michigan have asked the city council to ban fracking as a result of the speech. Rockingham County, VA is studying the impacts of drilling in the Marcellus Shale, after a company has applied for a well permit.

Obama’s new support of fracking could instill confidence in localities like Rockingham who are considering permitting. And clarified federal regulations, to be announced in a few weeks, may help answer questions and concerns lingering at the state level, paving the way for more fracking on state land.

Caitlin Kilpatrick
Master of Public Policy Candidate, Class of 2013
Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy

February 6th, 2012

Wordless Wednesday

February 1st, 2012

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