Friday, April 25, 2008

This IS the scientific community (episode 2)

Hey, look! I talked another professor into doing work for me! I guess it's only appropriate since I'm doing work for him, right?

Dr. Laurance G. Beauvais, Assistant Professor of Inorganic, Bioinorganic, and Materials Chemistry

Dr. Beauvais is my research adviser at San Diego State and I've been in his group for almost a year and a half. The research is concentrated on creating crystalline solids that will, hopefully, assist in gas storage (particularly hydrogen).

The (virtual) interview:

What is your honest opinion regarding the state of our environment and the existence of global warming? Do you believe that this is a serious issue to address or a misinterpretation of data?
Wow, that is a very broad question. Regarding the state of our environment, I would say that we (meaning the United States) have made great strides in some areas but we have a long way to go. For example, recycling programs are ubiquitous and we do a good job on metals and paper, but too many plastics are not being recycled. Combine the poor recycling of plastics with the use of plastics in packaging, and that generates a large amount of waste. We need to either re-use more plastics, most of which are produced from fossil fuels, or move to renewable plastics made other sources. I think that we have done a good job reducing sulfur and nitrogen oxides but we have not done enough to reduce mercury emissions.

Regarding the existence of global warming, I would have to say that all of the reports I have seen from credible scientists and scientific organizations has supported global warming. I am not a climatologist, so I am not ready to argue the minute details of global warming. However, I can do a quick calculation of the amount of CO2 released from gas combustion in this country per year and the number is staggering. The US consumes 400 million gallons of gas per day which results in the release of 884 gigagrams of CO2. Consider that CO2 cannot be removed from the atmosphere rapidly and that the carbon obtained from petroleum sources has been sequestered underground for millions of years. Thus, we will increase the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by burning oil. CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Add these facts up, and global warming does not seem so far-fetched. Therefore, I consider global warming a serious issue.

What is the most important thing that the average earth inhabitant can do to improve or avoid any current or future environmental impacts? Is there anything you do personally?
Are you considering wild animals, pets, and other living organisms as inhabitants or only humans? For now, let’s focus on humans.

Of course, there are many things that people can do to reduce their environmental footprint. I recycle as much as possible, I purchase locally produced items/foods whenever possible, I have a 10 minute commute, I carpool, etc. Consider the 400 million gallons of gasoline that are used everyday in the US. A good portion of that must be devoted to transporting manufactured goods, food, commodities, etc, and a good portion is probably transported by trucks. The more efficient means of moving goods is by rail, but the rail system in this county has deteriorated. If people purchased locally sourced items, we could reduce fuel consumption while at the same time improving local economies. Why do people want to live an hour away from work? Sure, I understand the desire for more space and bigger homes, but do you really enjoy sitting in traffic and paying $20 a day for gas? In most of the county, we do not even offer commuter trains that parallel major highways.

I would love to install photovoltaic cells on my house, but the prices are too high and the efficiency too low. I believe that we should see improvements on both of those factors in the next few years as alternatives to silicon-based systems are commercialized. If a large portion of the country generated their own power, it would go a long way to reducing one of our major sources of various emissions and fuel consumption–power generation.

How important is a move toward sustainable transportation, in your opinion? Do you think it is worth the effort that it will take? Is it a waste of time or an absolute necessity?
It would be great to retrofit our sprawling cities with mass transit systems. However, I do not think that works. You really need to have the transit in place at the same time you are developing a city. As an alternative, I think it worth the effort to produce cars that are as fuel efficient as possible and to target cleaner fuels such as hydrogen. Ignoring the environmental issues, we need to find an alternative transportation fuel to replace gasoline for reasons of national security. Our dependence on gasoline means the continued support of repressive totalitarian societies, such as Saudi Arabia. In addition, as people in China and India seek a lifestyle similar to that of the developed world, the demand for oil can only increase.

In terms of research, where do you think the most money and time should be spent? Are there any important global problems that you believe should be addressed immediately?
We need to determine how we want to address the future energy needs of our country and the world. We can estimate how much energy we will need, and we need to have a plan for supplying that energy. We will have to revisit nuclear energy because it has zero emissions, as long as we have the correct regulations and a permanent waste storage facility, but there is a limited supply of uranium. Ultimately, we need to improve photovoltaic cells so that we can generate power at the point of use and reduce the need for large power plants. We need to couple the power generation from solar cells to a power storage mechanism because solar power is limited to specific times and places. For example, use solar energy to pump water uphill during the day and recover the power at night by using hydroelectric generators. Or, use solar power to split water to generate hydrogen and then use internal combustion or fuel cells to generate electricity.

If you had the power to do so, regardless of your opinion on the state of the environment or petroleum, what technology would you pick to power our society? Why?
Solar power. It’s clean and renewable. Power can be generated where it is needed or converted to a storage medium. But, we need to develop solar cells with better efficiencies and costs. It would be nice to not need silicon because of the energy required to generate pure material. The solar cells will need to be flexible and easy to integrate into building materials.

If you could do one thing to improve the state of transportation in America, what would you do?
Get rid of the upper speed limit on highways and apply a well-enforced minimum speed limit.

Or, increase the average fuel efficiency by 10 mpg.

Do you think that public transportation development is important for major cities? What do you think about the system in San Diego?
Public transportation is important but I think it is nearly futile to build systems in cities like San Diego, LA, Houston, etc. The cities are spread out, land is expensive, and the resulting transit systems take too long for most uses.

Thank you for your time, Dr. Beauvais!

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