Duckweed

I have become convinced that duckweed as a source for biofuel is a total winner. Having just read a couple of articles about using duckweed as a source of starch to produce ethanol, I am convinced that, coupled with a few tricks to extract the oil and convert it to biodiesel and using thermal depolymerization on the rest, _at least_ 50% of the harvested biomass can be converted into fuel. Using _just_ the yields extrapolated from the hydroponics greenhouse I used in my trillion people paper I figure it should be very practical to produce at least 144 tons (288K lbs) of (dry) biomass per acre, per year (note that the duckweed should grow _at least_ twice as fast as higher plants so this should be _very_ conservative). That should result in a mix of fuels (ethanol, biodiesel and the light crude produced by the thermal depolymerization) of at least 20K gallons per acre per year (the break down should be around 1/3 each, though actual experimentation will be necessary to know for sure). Presuming I can net $3 per gallon (this includes tax incentives which are hard to count on, a more fair price would be $2 per gallon) that would result in a gross income of at least $60K per acre per year. Since I would automate the bulk of the harvest, processing, etc. (the main new process would be to harvest the duckweed, from that point on it is all traditional) and the main on-going cost is keeping the temp stable (for which I would likely try to do daily temp averaging which should result in minimal variable costs) the bulk cost would be amortizing the startup capital. Given that one can easily obtain brand new commercial greenhouses for less than $5 per square foot (which includes the environmental controls, some of which might not be necessary in a production system, so $5 should represent a worst-case scenario) then the first-blush capital costs are around $220K/acre (yes, this is vastly simplified, I know) for a gross return on investment of 27%. Even using $2/gallon the gross ROI comes out to 18%, still generally quite interesting to investors, particularly when the market for the product is (practically) unimaginably huge.

My conundrum is how to find interested investors who would back full-time research efforts. Due to the recent (but receded, now that I have been told the government will put off its decision on my position for 6 months) efforts at job searches and calculations at what would be the minimum income I would need to get to keep paying the bills it is feasible to consider as much as a 33% pay cut. Given my risk-seeking nature I would be happy to consider that sort of personal risk if I could get committed investors to cover the costs for at least a few years. I already have plenty of land upon which to do the experiments and proofs of concept (indeed, we have enough land that I could quite conceivably make enough to pay on-going expenses once the initial kinks are worked out). Still, 2/3 of what I currently make is still a lot (man does the intelligence community over pay for the clearance!) so investors would have to commit at least a million over several years, so this is a bit out of range for conventional angel investors (unless there is a group of several). There are granting agencies, but in my experience I have so close to a zero chance of being funded (and the funds so meager) that there is really no value in pursuing them. Larger investors, like venture capitalists, want all the experimental risk to have been removed before they will consider ponying up, something that I haven’t achieved (though expect to, in the fullness of time, but that would likely be a couple of years from now, at the very earliest). I even considered the idea of Kickstarter but it really isn’t the hardware funds to do the experiments that I need, it is to pay for my time and I just don’t get a warm-and-fuzzy that this research is something that could get serious interest (and not sure how I would ‘pay back’ the donations).

So, any of my manifold reader(s) have any ideas? Clearly large-scale success on a project like this would take a good decade (large-scale is measured in billions of gallons; enough to start to move the price of crude oil), probably two, but it is quite feasible to expect to see very dramatic signs of success within months, certainly within a year. The main uncertainty that I have uncovered (beyond the actual output from thermal depolymerization, something that can only be discovered by experimentation) is the aggregate annual growth rate of the duckweed. It seems that duckweed has dramatic swings in productivity where it goes from explosive growth (doubling sometimes in less than 24 hours) toward a resting stage that can last several days to longer than a week (even under otherwise optimal growing conditions). I have some strategies for getting around that, but, once again, experimentation is the key. The other concern is simply the reduction in growth due to the reduction in sunlight during the fall and winter, but based on my reading it seems that it is practical to expect no worse than a halving of the rate of growth at the nadir (under otherwise optimal conditions). It is plausible (but not something I consider likely, so haven’t done any calculations) that supplemental light could economically remedy this situation (the halving of the growth rate), but given the purpose of this is to produce fuel it doesn’t seem that practical to take fossil fuel energy to produce biofuel energy.

To me the calculations mentioned above are so conservative (note that the theoretical maximum biomass that could be produce per acre per year is 320 tons, so there is plenty of room yet to optimize) that there is an excellent probability that the research efforts would reveal various optimizations that could at least double the overall biofuel output per acre, per year, or about 40K gallons/acre/year. With tax incentives that produces a gross revenue of $120K (per acre, per year) or a gross ROI of almost 55%. Thus there is a lot of ‘fat’ in the system to absorb the inevitable mistakes during progression through the learning curve. More importantly, it makes the final process likely to be vastly more productive than any alternative except easily extracted crude oil (for which we have pretty much totally eliminated) which actually puts this product/process/idea into a direct, profitable, head-to-head competition (even excepting tax incentives) with the big oil companies. While the application of this ‘technology’ would result in the ‘destruction’ of any other land use (meaning that, for instance, you can’t graze cattle in the same fields like you can with solar and wind), the amount of land that would be needed (and it could be completely infertile since it is done in a totally artificial environment) to replace 100% of our _current_ consumption of liquid transportation fuels is quite tiny by comparison with the land available in our nation. If we assume only 20K gallons/acre/year and we assume 200 billion gallons of liquid fossil fuel use for transportation per year then we need 10,000,000 acres to replace the current usage. That is less than 16K square miles. For comparison, there are 3.8 million square miles in the US (though that probably includes Alaska). So, for an area sightly greater than the size of the state of Maryland, 100% of the liquid transportation fuels that are currently supplied by fossil fuels are produced by 100% renewable biofuel… AND a lot of people can make a _crap load_ of money off it (how many _billions_ do we send to the Middle East each year?).

What is not to love? Of course, I thought the exact same thing with my DNA sequencing chip project (with a projected 17,000:1 ROI) and couldn’t interest a single investor to pony up the bucks, so based on historical performance I would have to say that this idea also will languish until some other organization makes it a success and I wind embittered once again at the lost opportunity. But hey, the eternal optimist in me keeps trying, maybe this idea will finally be The One!

Melts in your body, not in your hand…

‘Melt in the body’ electronics devised
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-19737125

If they could control the dissolve time electronically then I think they would have a great winner. It seems to me that it should be possible to do something like that, have some sort of bio-compatible membrane that can be polarized or some such electronically so a command would start the dissolution process rather than just relying on chemistry alone. I can think that these would be interesting drug delivery devices, particularly when coupled with bio-based sensors.

So, if you get one of these, does that mean you are a cyborg? Do you stop being a cyborg once the thing has melted? So many unanswered questions ;-).

Should this be patented?

Man’s recurring tumors may change cancer care
http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-204_162-57521385/mans-recurring-tumors-may-change-cancer-care/

This is a great idea and likely one that will (should it be proven) turn out to be a huge boon to cancer treatment, possibly in as little as a half decade. The wonder for me, though, is that its adoption might be stifled because of the patents surrounding it. I find it hard to believe that no one else has done something similar, certainly similar enough for lawyers to have a field day, so I see this being caught up in courts for years, likely decades, and no one being able to take advantage of it because no one knows who the owners of the IP are and even if the patent is even viable.

Too bad, though. This could dramatically alter one of the most difficult to treat diseases that, collectively, is the source of a huge amount of suffering world wide.

The power of bug brains

Bumblebees navigate new turf without a map
The insects can quickly calculate the best route between flowers
http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/345298/title/Bumblebees_navigate_new_turf_without_a_map

Having spent a lot of time researching optimization, evolving programs and machine learning, this is quite interesting to me. I am almost interested enough to dig out the primary research and try to produce an algorithm that encompasses the bee behavior (but not quite; lack-o motivation has been a serious problem for me for quite a while now). Though computers are getting faster and faster, there are still problems that cannot be resolved by brute-force computation (and some that theoretically can never be resolved no matter what performance is achieved) and I am interested in areas where humans currently deal with those situations through ‘best guesses’, ‘gut feeling’ and ‘experience’ and attempt to provide computational solutions that are at least as good as what the humans turn out.

Too bad I can’t get anyone to pay me to do that sort of thing…

The war with Iran gets a little closer

I was sick Monday and still recovering on Tuesday, hence my recent silence.

Five lessons from the de-listing of MEK as a terrorist group
A separate justice system for American Muslims, the US embrace of terrorism, and other key political facts are highlighted
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/sep/23/iran-usa

I have talked about the looming war with Iran a number of times so this article isn’t really that special other than it is just one more brick laid on the road to war. It is almost certainly going to be the case that the MEK will be ‘recognized’ by the US as the ‘true’ government of Iran here in the next few months, a year at the outside. Despite that, while there is certainly a strong clerical presence behind the elected government, Iran actually is a Democracy (arguably more of one than the poor excuse we have here) and there is _nothing_ I have read about MEK that makes me think they are in any way representative of the Iranian people and they are, _without a doubt_, a terroristic organization that murders innocent people (of course, that is also a perfect description of our current government, so I guess they make excellent bedfellows). Our government doesn’t give a damn about people’s actions, _as long as those actions are supported by our government_, so this is all about laying the groundwork to convince the sheeple that invasion of Iran is necessary. Of course, our Great President might decide to invade anyway, even without the support of the people, as he did with Libya, and look where that got us.

More financial shenanigans

Wall Street Rolling Back Another Key Piece of Financial Reform
http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/taibblog/wall-street-rolling-back-another-key-piece-of-financial-reform-20120920

Idint great to be an American? It fills me with pride to know that our government is so diligent in serving and protecting the oligarchy! So nice that we aren’t one of those dirty third-world countries!

So, apropos of my post yesterday regarding the special law specifically targeting the small-time operator who lacks the resources to complain, here we have hair splitting in a law specifically intended to keep the oligarchy from raping the (ever dwindling) middle class by targeting their local governments that actually makes the exact same activity legal again! It would be amazing if it weren’t so routine. Of course, the sheeple never know about this, they only remember the original passing of the law and never get any of the follow-up information. I used to believe that incompetence was the primary force behind governments doing bad things but I am really having to give that up and move into the conspiracy angle as this can’t be coincidental that the exact same thing happens over and over and over again.

But hey, any illusion of participation in our government has always been exactly that, so why is now any different? I am starting to feel like Cypher in the Matrix. I just want to be plugged back into my ignorance and forget about all this crap.

Government by Whitaker and Baxter

Or how we lost universal health care because of the actions of two people and a lot of money.

The Lie Factory
How politics became a business.
http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/09/24/120924fa_fact_lepore

Yes, this is a long article (not sure that the New Yorker can write short ones ;-)), but it should be required reading for anyone interested in politics in the good old USofA. It is very revealing about how the oligarchy (which, after all, has remained more or less continuously in power for millennia) has basically paid a few people to redirect the emotions of the sheeple contrary to their own interests. Frightening, actually, which is why I so highly recommend it. Even though it starts in the early ’30s, it is amazing how relevant it is today. Nothing has actually changed in all that time, at least not for the better.

Debt Strike

Occupy’s new ground: Debt resistance
A new manual marks the launch of a new campaign and, possibly, a movement
http://www.salon.com/2012/09/18/occupys_new_ground_debt_resistance/

This is a very interesting idea, though I fear it really represents the seed for the return to debtors prison here in the US. There is no doubt in my mind that the oligarchy has taken advantage of the little guy (the shrinking middle class is the quite clear evidence) and bend and twist the law to suit themselves. However, for the little guy to also bend and twist the law almost certainly means bad things are going to happen to the little guy. As a case in point, just this morning a good friend of mine was telling me about how the SEC has ‘cracked down’ on a trading scheme (perfectly legal up to this point!) that he was using (to good effect, I might add; I tried to interest him into building a hedge fund around it, but he wants to keep it as a hobby, I guess). Anyway, he has been making so-called covered trades with options such that he had locked in his maximum loss when he submitted the trades though, in principle, based on the underlying value of the stock, he was ‘risking’ large sums of money. There really wasn’t any risk (even on paper) because the paired trades he made protected each other, yet the underlying transaction is now the one that the regulators will be evaluating, not the actual funds at risk. I am quite certain that if you read the regulations you would find fine print that exempts all large, politically connected trading organizations from any such enforcement, this is pure and simple a law put in place that impacts a politically insignificant population so that the politicians and regulators can crow about how tough they are on Wall Street. Why this is apropos to the article mentioned above is because it is specifically targeted legislation/regulation that is all about maximizing the returns of the oligarchy at the expense of the rest of the country.

Were this nascent movement to actually gain steam and somehow avoid being prosecuted out of existence I see it having a huge impact. A lot of the oligarchy depends on us sheeple being unwilling or unable to turn to alternatives. The US has built itself into a debt driven society so unwinding all that debt has unfortunate consequences for our economy in the short-term. However, at first blush it would seem that much of that impact would come to the issuers, buyers and holders of that debt, classes of people that seem to mostly be the oligarchy, so it seems like a good way to ‘stick it to the man’ AND improve our personal situation.

In case you are interested here is a link to the debt document:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/105887484/Occupy-Wall-Street-Strike-Debt-The-Debt-Resistors-Operations-Manual

No more traffic lights?

You won’t need a driver’s license by 2040
http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/18/tech/innovation/ieee-2040-cars/index.html?hpt=hp_t3

I long for the day when I no longer need to drive my car. Sure, there is a certain joy in tooling down the open road, but generally the law frowns on my preferred speed and where I live (in the DC metro area), there really aren’t that may clear and open roads anyway. I would cheerfully pay a $10K premium for a driver-less car (certainly _way_ cheaper than hiring a chauffeur!) and I really doubt I am alone. I think success at converting to driver-less will boil down to the number of lawsuits surrounding the inevitable accidents that happen. If the lawsuits are evaluated based on rational decision making, the greatest good for society, etc. (fat chance!) then I see this technology being rapidly adopted and actual driver-ed vehicles becoming a minority rather quickly. Indeed, I see it very plausible that a few accidents caused by humans resulting in the withdrawal of all driver’s licenses and there being nothing _but_ driver-less cars quite quickly. Certainly the most dangerous period will be the transition, though realistically, 30K entirely preventable deaths on the highway screams that we already have a highly dysfunctional system that needs immediate remediation.

Man, the things I could do if I didn’t have to spend so much time driving a car!

Quick post after a long weekend

Our boy had Monday off from school for some reason so we took advantage of that to get some extra work in our construction project. Today not much grabbed me until now, but I thought these two might be of interest to my reader(s)…

A Rare Look at Why The Government Won’t Fight Wall Street
http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/taibblog/a-rare-look-at-why-the-government-wont-fight-wall-street-20120918

Matt does a bit of a book review that looks at why there was so much inaction after Wall Street more or less destroyed the world economy (and got incredibly richer to boot). Pretty sad reading even just Matt’s comments, I don’t envision reading the book myself.

Unlike Afghan leaders, Obama fights for power of indefinite military detention
Obama lawyers file a breathless, angry appeal against the court ruling that invalidated the NDAA’s chilling 2011 detention law
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/sep/18/obama-appeals-ndaa-detention-law

If I thought there was any non-zero chance that Romney would reverse even a portion of the Bush/Cheney/Obama attacks on our Constitution I would vote for him as many times as I could. However, I am totally convinced that the Bush/Cheney/Obama shredding of the Constitution would continue unabated under Romney, so, being totally convinced that he will continue to gut what is left of the middle class in wholesale preference for the oligarchy (not that I doubt Obama will do some of this, just somewhat less so; it sure would be nice to have ‘none of the above’ as an option!), I remain convinced that Obama is the lesser evil. However, as Glenn’s article should make quite clear, Obama is very evil and is _clearly_ worse (and I never thought I would say this) than Bush/Cheney.

So sad that our country has come to this. I try to cling to fantasies that the pendulum will swing back, but, particularly after reading Matt’s article, I have a lot of trouble believing it.