Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Changing Fuel, Fueling Change

Yesterday afternoon, a family member showed us around his lab here in Denver (he's a physicist). It's a fairly sophisticated operation, and several employees were present, even this close to Christmas. A young woman with glasses and a bun worked the front desk, she was polite but clearly had her hands full with scheduling. We grabbed safety goggles as we entered the work area, but at this point they weren't necessary since nothing really dangerous was going on.

One of the lab techs came over to talk to us. His name was Dan, and he was happy to talk about what was going on here at the lab. There were several benches full of drills, hammers, welding torches, small stoves, and other relevant tools. At the center of everything was a roughly 8x8x16 foot rectangular assemblage of steel tubes. If this wasn't a laboratory, the structure could easily pass as playground equipment. However it became clear that it was intended as a container for some large scale apparatus.

Dan warmed up when he learned that I was about to graduate from the alma mater of a friend of his. Somehow, the topic of discussion abruptly turned to theoretical physics, which as it turns out is not very popular with practical physicists. Dan didn't like the fact that the theories of theoretical physics were not falsifiable and were difficult to test. I asked him if this had anything to do with the Large Hadron Collider, which I almost referred to accidentally as the "Large Hard-On Collider". Not being a theoretical physicist, he didn't know, or really care. But he did admit that theoretical physics was great for science fiction.

I asked him what was going to be housed within the massive tube system, and he said that it would house machinery to convert the thousands of trees afflicted by pine beetles into charcoal. While this charcoal could be used as fuel, in this case it would be used as a fertilizer which would also remove carbon from the atmosphere. Apparently, the charcoal can also be used to neutralize the damage done by mine tailings, which mine companies prefer to call "peripheral leavings" but scientists refer to in many cases as "toxins".

I then asked about if he thought Obama would be good for alternative fuel development companies like the one he was working for. He absolutely thought Obama would improve the state of alternative fuel in the US, pointing out that Obama dilligently went about creating a "brain trust" who would take an effective course of action many different issues. I agreed, a brain trust would certainly be better than the previous executive, who didn't trust brains. In particular, Dan was enthusiastic that Ken Salazar, formerly one of Colorado's senators, had been named as Secretary of the Interior. He was so enthusiastic that he accidentally referred to him as "Secretary of State".

At this point we had to leave, but I was happy to have had the chat. Even though gas prices have dropped, we still need to start working on building up other sources of energy. Government investment in private research is a good way to establish more effective energy sources, as has already happened in Brazil, and it's also good for our economy. Hopefully, Dan will be doing what he's doing for a long time.

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