Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Dear Judge Alsop: The Spectroscopic basis

In a suit brought by cities in California against Exxon, Judge Alsop has asked of the parties a set of questions which some parties on the INTERNET are busy crowd sourcing the answers to.  Now Eli has never been one to avoid a pile on, so the Bunny thought he might essay an answer to two of the questions
2.  What is the molecular difference by which CO2 absorbs infrared radiation but oxygen and nitrogen do not? 
3.  What is the mechanism by which infrared radiation trapped by CO2 in the atmosphere is turned into heat and finds its way back to sea level?
Let Rabett Run start with question 2. Many of the answers start and end with what was learned in Modern Physics or Physical Chemistry.  Real Climate has settled on
Greenhouse gases are those that are able to absorb and emit radiation in the infrared, but this is highly dependent on the gases molecular structure. Diatomic molecules (like N2 or O2) have stretching modes (with the distance between the two molecules expanding and contracting), but these require a lot of energy (so they absorb only at higher energies. Vibrational modes in molecules with three or more atoms (H2O, CO2, O3, N2O, CH4, CFCs, HFCs…) include bending motions that are easier to excite and so will absorb and emit lower energy photons which coincide with the infrared radiation that the Earth emits. Thus it is these molecules that intercept the radiation that the Earth emits, delaying its escape to space.
This is approximately true, but not quite the whole story and much can be learned by going a bit deeper.  It is not that N2 or O2 cannot absorb or emit IR, but their absorption and emission is many orders of magnitude weaker than H2O, CO2 and other greenhouse gases found in the atmosphere.   How many orders of magnitude?  Well about ten.

A good place to start is the HITRAN data base maintained by the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.  HITRAN stands for High Resolution Transmission.  The database, just like the JANAF tables, is a fruit of the cold war started when the US Air Force was interested in learning more about the propagation of light in the atmosphere for such things as aiming missiles and such.  It is essentially a list of lines in the transmission spectra of various molecules under different conditions of  temperature, and pressure.  Using the database one can generate spectra of self-same molecules which are eerily accurate.  GATS among others provides a front end to calculate spectra using HITRAN, so let us start to explore.

The first question is does N2 or O2 absorb IR light. We know the vibrational frequency of these molecules, so we can look at what the database tells us how much light nitrogen would absorb in the atmosphere at a pressure of 1 mbar (1000th of atmospheric pressure. Be patient the reason for this choice will become clear in a few minutes), a temperature of 296 K and a path length of 1000 km.  Yes Eli knows that such a gas cell is not currently available, but with HITRAN we can accurately model this.

The alternating intensities of the lines are due to the symmetry of the nitrogen molecule but that is another story with which we need not concern ourselves at this time.  We can do the same for O2 

Turns out that the triplets seen in this spectrum are the source of the signal that the Microwave Sounding Units that measure tropospheric temperatures monitor.

But now we can do the same for CO2

The difference in path length for absorbing about the same amount of light by CO2 is 0.1 cm, or, if you wish 10-6 km.  So the difference in the absorption would be a factor of 10-9.  

But you say, the mixing ratio of CO2 in the atmosphere is 410 parts per million or 0.00041, and the concentration of N2 is 0.70 thus the number  of N2 molecules per CO2 molecule is just 1.75 x 104 while the N2 absorption is 10-9th of the COabsorption.  Put that together and the amount of IR absorbed by N2 is roughly 0.00002 of that absorbed by CO2.

Ms. Rabett is calling, so let Eli provide a bit of a teaser for Part II.  Here is the absorption of 400 ppm CO2 at atmospheric pressure across a 3 m cell.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Breakthrough Institute and The Politics of Limits

The Interchange is an interesting renewable energy/renewables business podcast by GreenTech Media, and the most controversial podcast I've heard so far is an interview with Breakthrough Institute's Alex Trembath.

Some thoughts:

  • Alex says they've consciously decided to be less critical of mainstream environmental groups, less obnoxious and rock-throwing, and good for them for this change. There are some times when obnoxious rock-throwing is appropriate - that wasn't the case regarding past BI behavior, so it's good that they've changed it and are willing to say they've decided to change it.

  • Alex rightly says the environmental movement prior to 2004 (when the Breakthrough guys started doing their thing) had a much stronger emphasis on limits to growth then it does today, but is wrong to say there was something wrong about that. I'm sure plenty of people back then realized solar and wind costs were dropping dramatically, but I don't know if anyone would've said you can count on renewable energy being cheaper than fossil fuels, even without subsidies or accounting for externalities. That meant some type of limit was a necessary argument back then for energy issues (and remains a component of many other environmental issues).

  • He goes on to argue that limits to growth and saying no in general is a bad political tactic. I'm open to that argument but I'm not sure what BI is doing with it or backing it up with solid research (might be a little unfair to demand that of a podcast).

  • Alex says BI started off with a focus on renewables and EVs. That's sure not how I remember it, which was nuclear power all the time. He says they're now into nuclear as well. Yep.

  • He claims power systems get unstable with renewables are 50% of the total. I thought we were over that, and the discussion really is 80% versus 100%.

  • Alex makes an unnecessary dig at energy efficiency, with the Jevons Paradox etc.  That's a miss - I think the political economy vastly underestimates the unsexy value of efficiency, the complete opposite of what he was saying.

All in all, too much techno-optimism, but it could be worse, and BI seems to be moving in a better direction. It's less clear to me whether they have the chops to make any real contribution, though.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Sleazy Actor Slush Fund (Cohen's the sleazy actor, not the porn star)

Late to the party but that's not new. The issue is Trump's attorney Michael Cohen claiming he paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 out of his own pocket without being reimbursed by the Trump Organization or the Trump campaign. Kevin Drum says:

OK, here’s my guess: Cohen paid Stormy; Kushner paid Cohen; Ivanka paid Kushner; Don Jr. paid Ivanka; and Don Jr.’s end-of-year bonus from The Trump Organization was $130,000 higher than last year thanks to his outstanding performance. You don’t believe me? Fine. Come up with a better theory.
Kevin's theory is closer to reality than he thinks, because I think I may have seen this game before in California politics. The game is played by sleazy political consultants who want to keep up the win ratios for a client for purposes of getting future business, but can't bill the client for the sleazy thing they'd like to do. So they use money they earned previously, that was previously placed in an entirely separate slush fund, to do whatever's needed. Long after that matter is concluded and the campaign is over, they go back and refill the slush fund with their own personal profits.

In reality the client is being billed, ultimately - the sleazy actor is very expensive because he wins a lot, so he can afford to replenish the revolving slush fund from profits as a kind of cost of doing business that doesn't quite show up on the accounting books.

I'm not guaranteeing this is right. Maybe it's something else in Cohen's case, as people point out he doesn't rule out being paid directly by Trump. This technique seems like an obvious possibility though and one I've guessed at previously.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Matching Methane Combustion to Carbon Capture

An idle thought that probably has occurred to a lot of people.  There is a lot of talk about clean coal with carbon (dioxide) capture. There is a lot of discussion about a hydrogen economy driven by catalytic electrolysis of water.

2H2(g)+ O2(g)--> 2H2O(g)    ΔH = 2(-241) kJ/mol = -482 kJ/mol

Eli's idle mind thought about comparing this to natural gas combustion

CH4(g) + 2O2(g) --> 2H2O(g)  + CO2(g)   ΔH = -801 kJ/mol 

Now methane, or natural gas, whether it is in the gas form or liquefied is easier to handle than hydrogen, if for no other reason that it can be liquefied. What interested Eli in this simple calculation is that methane and hydrogen have the same number of hydrogen atoms.  Eli knows that this is a very Rabett way of thinking, but if you twist your mind that way it means that there are 319 kJ/mol available for carbon capture.  True you might have to invest some of that to sweep out the water vapor, but even there there are possibilities for recapturing the heat generated in the condensation step

 2H2O(g)  --> 2H2O(l)    ΔH = 2(-44) kJ/mol = -88 kJ/mol

The interesting chemical question is can a bunny find a carbon dioxide capture system which can simultaneously capture CO2 and absorb the water vapor into solution as a liquid.  Eli is a clever bunny, it's easy to be clever and find the answer when you figure out what the question is.  Amines are obviously not going to do the job, ionic fluids might and there are some systems already known which may point the way

Setting this up as a process means that natural gas can be combined with carbon capture to yield an emission free system that can easily be combined with wind, solar, hydro and yep, nuclear to provide inexpensive (a friend taught Eli never to use the word cheap) and reliable electrical energy.  There is lots of energy to be used for the carbon capture process.  Given the right chemical system, it might even work for trucks and buses.  Autos, well leave them to Toyota, Tesla and GM.

The future will be clean natural gas and renewables.

Monday, February 19, 2018


The latest massacre of innocents has stirred up a hitherto unseen anger. Thoughts and prayers were never enough, but Emma Gonzales put it in words

  • Nothing could have ever been done to prevent this                                     We call BS
  • Tougher gun laws do not decrease gun violence                                          We call BS
  • They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun                        We call BS
  • They say guns are just tools like knives that are as dangerous as cars,         We call BS
  • They say that no laws could have prevented the 100s of
    senseless tragedies that have occurred                                                            We call BS
  • That us kids don't know what we are talking about that we are too
    young to understand how the government works.                                            We call BS
Eli went to school in the 1950s when every month you practiced ducking and covering under your desk in case an atomic bomb dropped, where just about every building had an air raid shelter  sign pointing to the basement.  Everybody knew this was useless.  We had all seen pictures of Hiroshima after the bomb dropped.  It was BS but the fantasy of survivability supported a complex of  illusionists like Herman Kahn and the Rand Corporation who made their living. A generation of kids was scared of every day.

Today we have a generation of kids who have grown up practicing active shooter training.  They go to school every day wondering if it will be their last.  The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have endured this all their days

Let Eli close with a story from Twitter, of a parent's discovery.  There should not be a parent in American who is not having such moments.
My 5th grader and I were conversing on the way to work/school this morning. As an educator, I wanted to be sure he and his classmates were taking the school safety drills seriously and not using it as a time to socialize and goof off.

Me: Have you guys practiced a lockdown drill in class yet?

Dez: Are you talking about an active shooter drill?

Me: Yes

Dez: Yes, we practiced it

Me: So tell me what you are suppose to do.

Dez: The teacher is suppose to shut and lock the door, put the black paper over the window on the door. Then myself and three other boys are suppose to push the table against the door.

After that all the class is going to stand behind us on the back wall.

Me: The class is suppose to stand behind who?

Dez: Me and the other 3 boys. We stand at the front and they get behind us.

*I internally went from 0 to 100 real quick. My child is one of only 2 black children in a class of 23. Being transparent, I immediately went to the "why is my black son being put on the front line?" (Just being real) So I asked before I verbally stated my thoughts*

Me: Why did you get picked to stand in front of everyone else if a shooter came in your school?

Dez: I didn't get picked. I volunteered to push the table and protect my friends

Me: 😯*immediate nausea * Dez why would you volunteer to do that?

Dez: If it came down to it I would rather be the one that died protecting my friends then have an entire class die and I be the only one that lived

Father God, it took everything out of me not to breakdown. I still have a lump in my throat. Ten damn years old and this has to be our babies thought process in America.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Nothing New in the Pielkesphere

Well Gavin, Climate of, has had it with a certain political scientist, 

and And is naval gazing about how scientists should communicate, so memories stirred in Eli's Email list about science communication and Ethon's friend, so with the majic of search Eli found this letter which discussed how the National Assessments of Climate Change impacts came into being and the role of scientists as communicators.  
But Roger didn't like that either. It became evident that Roger's modus operandi, like his father's, is along the lines of "everyone but me is full of shit so stop thinking about what you think is significant and do my agenda instead."  
Bush-Cheney suppressed the National Assessment for the denial machine, because they could see the implications of allowing that discourse to flourish. But Roger has nothing to contribute on any such matters. He has failed so badly, and even harmfully, to see that the science community is not the problem on climate change (not to say that scientists couldn't benefit from knowing how to communicate better), it's much more importantly what happens on the receiving end of politics, media, and the public -- and how that connection has been mediated and manipulated by various interests.  
If it could be fixed by heroic efforts of scientists to communicate with civilians on climate change, it would be fixed already. I believe that a serious discussion of climate change as a policy problem calls for a progressive critical analysis of the political situation, not just beating up on the science community. For someone whose degree is in political science (my field of graduate study as well), Roger is just friggin clueless (to put it as kindly as I can) about how to think about and discuss the political aspect of things. That contributes to his remarkable, never-ending ability to miss the key point of whatever matter he is discussing and say something wrong-headed. If he gets into new subject matter the same problem will occur.  
 That only scratches the surface of the problem, I realize.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Another Sadly-Unpaid Endorsement: The Beyond Burger


(Someday maybe I can sell out for money, but right now I'm forced to endorse products based on quality alone....)

I have both (slightly unusual) ethical and (the usual) environmental reasons for thinking I should avoid meat, especially red meat. But I really like it. And I'm back on a low-carb diet which also narrows options.

I haven't yet tried the Impossible Burger that all the hip people are talking about. I have tried The Beyond Burger though (it's in our local Safeway) and it's darn good. It's not identical to burgers in taste and feel, but very close, and when grilled it gives you a very similar experience. I've never been satisfied with the various veggie burger alternatives, so if you're in the same camp, check it out. I don't think I'll every buy regular burger meat again for myself when I have this alternative.

Consumer Reports has a writeup here. Definitely a healthier alternative, except for the high sodium (a problem I see in a number of veggie alternative foods). Too bad they don't have a greenhouse gas emission comparison, but it's virtually certain that pea protein has far lower emissions than beef.