27 May 2008

A Brief Look at Alternative Fuels

About a week ago, I was driving from Athens to Atlanta down 316. I don't like driving. I don't like 316. I don't like Atlanta. I always feel guilty about the drive - it's well over 100 miles round-trip. And though my little Toyota Echo is very fuel efficient, rising gas prices make the trip pricey. Not to mention that the horizon around Atlanta has a very sickly brown color. It's just not a good experience.

This trip, though, was made better by NPR. I like NPR, even if they are viewed by some to be nothing more than a bunch of hippies/liberals/communists/feminists/etc. Even if they present a skewed view (which, to be honest, is not as true as other sources of media), they can at least be polite about the hole thing. I've been listening to NPR since I was a child, and not once have I heard the hosts get into shouting matches with their guests, which is more than can be said for cable news programs. But I digress. NPR was broadcasting The Commonwealth Club, a California organization that invites speakers to present their views on varying topics. This particular speech was given by the CEO of GM, G. Richard Wagoner. And what he had to say surprised me - he dedicated the better part of the speech to the development of more fuel efficient vehicles and alternative forms of energy.

It doesn't matter if you believe in global warming or not. It doesn't matter if you think recent high gas prices will go down or not. All that matters is that the current world economy is dependent on transportation, which is dependent on a finite resource. At some point in the near future, we will run out of fuel. Before that time, we need to find a new source and adapt the infrastructure to fit the source. And better sooner than later.

So, with this in mind, here's a quick view of the common alternatives.

Bio-Diesel and Griesel/Straight Vegetable Oil (SVO)
First, watch this interview with Aaron Weiss of mewithoutYou. Great band, great guy, and interesting bus.

I have long supported the use of SVO. You can run a traditional diesel motor with it (at the cost of fuel efficiency). And in warmer climates, it works pretty well. But the problem is that the restaurants don't use oil to sustain a large economy. So instead, we end up using "virgin" SVO, which is slightly wasteful. The main advantage of SVO is that it recycles this oil that we don't need. And, as addressed in the video, cooler temperatures can cause problems for running a griesel engine. Bio-diesel runs into a similar problem. Diesel ignites at a higher temperature than gasoline*.

Of course, we should not be too hasty in ruling out bio-diesel and griesel entirely. UGA runs their bus system off of used grease from the dinning halls (I may be mistaken, but I believe we use a B20 mixture, meaning that it is 20% bio-diesel). Diesel has long been used to run heavier vehicles, namely farm equipment and eighteen wheelers. Diesel engines were developed so that farmers could dedicate crops to fuel production.

My friends and I joke about cars that run on Everclear and Golden Grain. Mostly because we're college students. But the use of ethyl alcohol (ethanol) is rather promising. Corn and soybeans produce large amounts of ethanol, which burns cooler, reducing the size of the cooling unit needed. So while ethanol is not as efficient as regular gasoline, the resulting reduction in vehicle weight makes up some ground.

Ethanol has some special sources, as well. Last April, I attended a symposium hosted by the UGA chapter of the Roosevelt Institute, a national student think tank. One policy proposal was the development of cellulose-based ethanol. In short, with the development of a certain enzyme, pulp derived from recycled paper products can be converted into ethanol. The two flaws in this plan: 1. The enzyme has yet to be found. 2. Diverting paper products from regular recycling to fuel development requires more trees to be cut down. Careful attention would have to be used in deciding which paper products are used to make recycled paper and which are used to make fuels.

The other source is hemp. While certain types of cannabis plants are used as drugs, hemp does not contain sufficient amounts of THC to produce a "high". Hemp produces, among many things, to include durable fabrics and robes (the oldest piece of fabric ever found is made of hemp), paper (it contains longer strains and is lighter in shade, meaning it can be recycled more and does not need to be bleached), food (hemp is high in fiber and other proteins, and to consume enough hemp to get a moderate buzz is the equivalent of taking two or three high fiber laxatives), and ethanol. Because hemp can be grown closer together, it produces more ethanol per acre than soy or corn, and more paper per acre than any type of tree. Hemp is grown in nearly every part of the world, except for the US, where legal regulations on every variety of cannabis makes production cost-prohibitive.

The downside of ethanol is that while it may burn cleaner than fossil fuels, there is question on how clean.

The Problem of Food Prices
The largest argument against non-celluslosic based ethanol is that it is driving food prices up. Which might be true. But it doesn't have to be. Because corn and soy are so heavily subsidized sold at such a low cost, farmers do not meet their full potential for production. Crops are either left to rot, burned, or not planted - it's just not worth it. The problem isn't that we can't produce enough crops to feed the world and produce fuel, it's that we don't get the food to where it needs to go. To compound this, Americans are affluent. We throwout food that is only a day past the sell-by date. If we were to take only what we planned on eating, and not what "might be nice to have at some point next week", we wouldn't have as much of a problem. We buy in bulk, eat about half of it, and throw the rest out. I'm not saying that, by changing our shopping habits and subsidies, we can completely alleviate world hunger, but we can take steps in the right direction WITHOUT getting rid of biofuels.

Electric Engines
Electric engines are great. They have been in development for a while, so they are getting to the point where they can actually compete with traditional internal-combustion-based vehicles. The problem is that the electricity has to come from somewhere. Which means that fossil-fuels are indirectly used to power many electric cars. The advantage is that when the energy market as a whole changes formats (from coal or oil based to hydro, wind, or geothermal based), the electric car will still be able to operate. The other problem is battery power - the technology for the batteries has a long way to go.

The hydrogen fuel cell is an electric car that runs on hydrogen. I'm not smart enough to explain how it gets electricity from hydrogen, but it does. And it's exhaust? Water.

There are a few problems, though. Cost is a big part of it. Another part is compression - hydrogen has severe limitations in how much can be stored in a fuel cell. But the biggest problem is efficiency. It takes a lot of energy to produce the hydrogen to produce the electricity. Take a look at this chart.
It would be much more effective to use a traditional battery.

One of the great things that Mr. Wagoner said is that alternative fuels have to fit the area in which they are used. The alternative fuel for the US doesn't have to be the same as the alternative fuel for Europe. Which is why Brazil's FlexCar is such a great technology.


Rock on.

*Anecdote time! When I was in high school, my JROTC Ranger team trained in fire suppression. We trained using diesel fires contained in pans. In order to ignite, the diesel had to be mixed with gasoline. The gasoline was lit, and as it burned, it, in turn, ignited the diesel.

Update (22 June 2008) - About two weeks ago, GM announced that they would be reevaluating several of their lines, to include the Hummer and other SUVs. Granted, this doesn't mean that they will discontinue the Hummer, but even making it a few miles to the gallon more efficient is a step in the right direction.

20 May 2008

In What Do You Have Faith?

I have previously written on proponents of fundamental atheism who argue that religion is inherently a bad thing. Part of their argument depends on faith: If we can will ourselves to have faith in a god that cannot be proven, this faith can be used and/or manipulated to drive us to commit horrible atrocities.

To this, I say that their basic premise is correct: Faith in the divine can be manipulated, and it has been in the past.

But does this mean that the problem is the faith or the manipulator? And what does the manipulator have faith in?

The Crusades are a dark, dark period in the history of the Church. Especially for Catholics. And they were fought over faith - faith in Christianity and the Church, faith in the Pope, faith in God. Many of the soldiers had faith that they were doing the right thing - delivering the Holy Land from Muslim conquerors. But what did the leaders have faith in? I would suggest they had faith in the money they could earn by capturing artifacts and royalty, faith in the ransom they would be paid, faith in the power they could gain by controlling the land, faith in themselves. This same theme pops up in many acts of religious violence: the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the sale of Indulgences, the wars of the Reformation, the White Power movement, the Wahhabi extremist movement, the Lord's Resistance Army, and many more.

Likewise, let's look at the Khmer Rouge, the perpetrators of the Cambodian genocide. What did the soldiers have faith in? I would imagine that they had faith in the world they were fighting for, faith in the Revolution and the liberation of the workers, faith in Pol Pot. This faith in a cause, leader, and higher power - the same faith held by the Crusaders, though placed in a different cause - Communism, not Christianity - a different leader - Pol Pot, not the Pope - and a different higher power - the Government, not God - manifest itself in the same way. That is to say, it lead to violence and genocide, to the loss of life, and the murder of the innocent. And why did it reach this level? Because Pol Pot had faith as well. Faith that he would be rewarded for his trouble, faith that he could take power, faith in himself. And like the violence committed by those who have faith in God, those who have faith in humans and ideas have the same theme: the purges of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Kim Il-Sung, the genocide in Nazi Germany, the race-fueled violence in the Sudan, Rwanda, and South Africa, the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, and many more.

Faith can be dangerous. It must be taken with a grain of salt. Faith in most things can be manipulated. Believers in both God and Freedom must take into consideration what they are being told. They must think about the end results; they must think about whether or not their leader has faith in the cause or faith in the power delivered by the cause.

But faith can also offer hope of a better world. It can offer more than skepticism and rationality ever will. Faith has brought freedom, charity, love. Faith has brought peace. Faith has brought as much good as it has bad. And it is not worth abandoning.

Rock on.

18 May 2008

Can Christians Be Hedonists?

I just read an article on Christian Hedonism by John Piper. And I must admit, I think he's lost it.

He argues against Christian morality as a deontological theory. And to that degree, he's right. We shouldn't follow Christ because it is the right thing to do.

But should we really be following Christ because we want to get into Heaven?

By no means!

Hedonism, whether addressed from a secular or religious standpoint, is a self-centered point of view. Even if we take John Stuart Mill's defense* of hedonism and admit, as I am willing to, that true happiness is found neither in immediate returns or physical (lower) pleasures, hedonism still reduces the right thing to do down to what's best for the actor.

Piper argues that many places in the Bible address the rewards offered to the faithful in Heaven. And to be sure, Christians should look forward to the eternal Kingdom of God. But Piper's main flaw in the logical conclusion of this train of thought (which he conveniently avoids). By hedonistic reasoning, if we should do good deeds because God will reward us, than we earn our rewards and negate the need for Christ as Saviour. Sure, we can keep him as our Teacher and Lord, but his crucifixion becomes meaningless.

Why should Christians do what they do? Well, in all honesty, some, perhaps even most, Christians start their journeys because they want to get into Heaven, to avoid Hell, or because they were taught that "It's the right thing to do." A sign of true oneness with God, however, is acting the way God acts - acting out of Love. It's not something taught in ethics classes and the classical ethicists have not written about it. But it's why Christ did what he did. And we are called to follow him.

Rock on.

*For more on this defense, see Mill's Utilitarianism.

12 May 2008

"Master and Commander" and Evoloution

It's summer. It's time to sit around and watch movies.

Today's showing was Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

For those who haven't seen this movie, it is, in no uncertain terms, amazing. Good music, good acting, and 19th century naval warfare. What's not to like?

In the movie, the ship's doctor, Stephen Maturin (played by Paul Bettany), is also a naturalist. At one point in the movie, he, in a nod to Charles Darwin, explores the Galapagos Islands and observes the evolutionary traits of the fauna. He explains these traits to one of the young officers on the ship, who asks, "Did God make them change?"

His answer sums up my view on evolution.

"Does God make them change? Yes, certainly. But do they also change themselves? Now that is a question, isn't it?"

Evolutionary theory does not negate God, nor does God negate evolution. The sooner both sides can learn this, the better off academia and the Church will be.

Rock on.
Edit: 24 November 2008

10 May 2008

Did you know that...

...the Wikipedia article on Christian terrorism is longer than the Wikipedia article on Islamic terrorism?

It's true. And while many of the groups listed are American white supremacy groups or radical anti-abortion advocates, it devotes several paragraphs to the LRA (those responsible for the atrocities in Uganda), both sides of the Northern Ireland conflict, Serb and Russian nationalists, and even a few groups in Indonesia and Lebanon.

Just something to think about the next time someone goes on a rant about how Islam is an evil/violent religion.

Rock on.

02 May 2008

Damned Nephilim

I'm about three pages into my term paper on the Nephilim (Gen. 6:4) and I think when I'm done, I'm going to take a month off of any explicit study/reading/thinking/GAAH! of mythology. It seems every time I chase down a connection in Greek or Mesopotamian mythology, it circles back around and I have a new connection to figure out.

The good news is that means there's plenty to write about. But keep in mind when I started this thing, I was told by not a small number of people, "You know, I don't think I've ever seen more than a paragraph on the Nephilim in any one place."

Anyway, this post is just to say two things:
1) HAH! I'm doing research on a graduate level for an undergrad class. Take that, whoever thinks religion majors are a joke.
2) I now know more about divine/human relations, giants, evil, forbidden knowledge, the flood, and how they all relate, than any normal person should. I stopped being normal about ten sources back.

Now I'm going to go away for the weekend and write.

Edit: Part of me wonders why my Apoc. Lit. reader is filed as "General Interest". And now I'm just stalling on getting back to work.
Edit: Finished it after an all-nighter. Huzzah!


PS: If anyone's interested in reading my paper, just leave a message and I'll email you a copy.

South Africa at the Olympics

The main argument I hear against boycotting the Olympics is, "The Olympics should not be political."

Well, in 1962, South Africa was barred from participating in the Olympics. The ban last until 1992. The reason for the barring was apartheid.

Just something to think about.

Rock on.