Thursday, July 07, 2005

A Bunch From Crumb Trail

Call this a roundup post for the excellent blog Crumb Trail, which I for some reason have overlooked on the sidebar. Back to it presently enough. Anyway:

He points us to this story about University of Oregon researchers coming up with a way to create ammonia at atmospheric temperature and pressure.

In the atmosphere, nitrogen gas is inert. However when nitrogen is converted to ammonia, it becomes available as a nitrogen source for plant growth – and as such is the fertilizer that drives the world's food supply. Industry produces ammonia using the century-old Haber-Bosch process, which directly combines nitrogen from the air with hydrogen under extremely high pressures and temperatures.
The Haber process requires pressures of 200 atmospheres.
"In the eyes of chemists, the conversion of nitrogen to ammonia in water, using simple hydrogen at room temperature and pressure is the holy grail of nitrogen fixation," Tyler said. "The next challenge is figuring out how to carry out the complete cycle in water."

So far as I can tell, Kyoto is a feel-good sop that does absolutely nothing to change global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels principally because it omits developing countries like India and China. Reading Roger Pielke, Jr., he cuts to the chase on a matter that has bothered me previously, namely the idea that the IPCC report has been subjected to insufficient scrutiny. This graf from Gary neatly encapsulates my concerns:

The problem is that the study was elevated to iconic status by the IPCC without due dilligence, and defects in the methodology used in the study have provided ample opportunities for those who object to the politics for which the symbol stands to discredit it. Pielke does a good job of explaining some of the problems with the stick study and makes an interesting observation.
Here is how I see it -- MBH conducted several studies that, by the conventional norms of the climate science community, represented excellent work and were published in leading journals in the field. But the norms of the climate science community for peer review and replication are not widely shared in other fields. So when MM were drawn to MBH (indirectly or directly by the IPCC SPM no doubt) from outside the climate science community with an eye to take a close look at the their work I’d venture that MM likely brought along with them a perspective on norms of peer review and replication quite different from MBH. . .
He concludes with this:
Politicians can do very little good but very great harm. This is an instance when I'm pleased about grid lock and trances since this isn't a policy issue, it's a technology issue. Once that is understood it may become possible for policies that assist technology development to be formulated. I don't mean pork-barrel policies like ethanol subsidies and mandates or pie-in-the-sky hydrogen projects. We don't need an analog of The Apollo program or ITER which picks some technology and persues it at all costs, even when the benefits are questionable, just to be able to say we did it. This is fine for individual American states, such as California's proposed Million Solar Roofs program, but it is inappropriate for national or international bodies since that would stifle innovation and experimentation with alternative approaches. (Although boutique sized nations that are far smaller than American states such as California have little alternative to the pick-one approach.) At higher levels support should be broad and non-specific. The sensible action is to grease the discovery machine and smile benignly on both the failures and successes as the world network works the problem, and carry water for them all, helping to publicize their efforts and results so that others can learn, adapt and improve.
I'm more a little more sanguine about the utility of ITER over the long haul -- fusion uses a potentially inexhaustible fuel cheaply and readily available everywhere on earth (deuterium) -- but the Apollo program is a very astute analogy. It's one thing to spend a ton of money to accomplish a straightforward goal. But the history of governments doesn't show they're very good at producing cheap anything for the masses. ITER has a noble goal, but there are real and significant questions as to whether it can ever really be cost-effective. After all, DARPA-let contracts may have developed the IP stack, but it wasn't until the NSF got out of access in the 90's that the Internet really took off.