Celebrating Go for a Ride Day

Guess it isn’t really news to anyone that today is the day our American and Canadian friends celebrate Thanksgiving. For the rest of you, how about joining me in celebrating a different 22 November holiday – Go for a Ride Day? This is the day to take a bit of a break from your daily schedule and go for a ride. Do it zen style – ride for the sake of the trip, rather than with a specific destination in mind.

When it comes to travelling for the sake of the trip, nothing beats the romance of a train journey.
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The choice of transport is yours – perhaps you’d prefer to take your own car, motorcycle or bicycle, or for an even more relaxing option, how about public transport – a train, a plane, perhaps a bus, or how about a taxi? For a completely different experience, go for a unique alternative – swop your bicycle for a unicycle; opt for public transport via pulled rickshaw; or go vintage with a trip on an ox-wagon or donkey-cart. Anything will do, as long as it can take you on a relaxing meander.

There may not be many of these old classics around anymore, but a ride on an ox-wagon would definitely make Go for a Ride Day extra special.
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And while you’re out enjoying the scenery in your chosen mode of transport, spare a thought for the inventors and innovators who played a part in dreaming up, designing and refining the vast array of vehicles that we can pick and choose from. The list is endless. I thought of naming a few, but it really is an impossible task – for every innovator you mention, there’s another ten not mentioned, who played an equally integral part in the invention. And then there are all the vehicles that we don’t even have a clue who the inventor(s) were – anybody know who made the first rickshaw?

Whichever inventor you decide to celebrate, and wherever your ride takes you, I hope you have a great Go for a Ride Day!

Tires, rubber, burnouts and environmental disasters

Fancy a burnout? A donut, perhaps?

No, I’m no street racer, not even much of a petrol-head. I’ve just got rubber and tires on my mind, since today back in 1900 is the day that the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company was founded. Even through Firestone cannot lay claim to inventing rubber tires (that honour goes to John Boyd Dunlop for the first pneumatic tire, and to Charles Goodyear for the vulcanisation of natural rubber), they were one of the early pioneers in tire production. Along with Goodyear, they were the largest automotive tire suppliers in the US for the best part of the 20th century.

The company was sold to the Japanese Bridgestone Corporation in 1988.

Tire burnouts can be spectacular, but certainly doesn’t help in terms of scrap tire pollution.
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Given the number of tires produced and sold internationally, the environmental challenges of dealing with scrap tires are quite significant. In the US alone, about 285 million scrap tires are generated every year. Tires dumped in a landfill is a fire hazard – tire fires can burn for months, creating serious air and soil pollution. They can also liquify under high temperatures, releasing hydrocarbons and other harmful contaminants into the ground. Shredded tire pieces are likely to leach even more, due to the increased surface area on the shredded pieces.

The durability of scrap tires do make it suitable for certain recycling applications. Shredded tires, or tire derived aggregate (TDA), can be used as backfill for retaining walls and as vibration damping for railway lines. Ground and crumbed rubber, also known as size-reduced rubber, can be used in paving as well as in moldable products such as flooring, decking, tiles and rubber bricks. These applications, however, only consume a small percentage of the total tire waste produced annually.

The use of tires has also been suggested in the construction of artificial reefs, but the sensibility of this is questionable, with the Osborne Reef, for example, turning into a multi-million dollar environmental nightmare.

Despite all the attempts at solving the problem of scrap tire waste, it remains an environmental nightmare, and the best ‘solution’ probably involves addressing the problem at it’s source – reducing the number of scrap tires produced annually.  Small things such as driving sensibly to preserve tire life, carpooling, use of public transport, walking and cycling instead of driving – these may appear arbitrary, but are things we can all do, and while it won’t make the problem go away, it can make a difference in the long run.

Artificially green – celebrating the synthesis of chlorophyll

Today seems to be one of those ordinary days in history – at a cursory glance, nothing seriously bad happened, but nothing too exciting either.

Well, I am no chemist, but the fact that chlorophyll A was for the first time synthesised in a laboratory on this day back in 1960, is probably pretty exciting. Its chlorophyll, after all – the abundant green stuff which allows plants to absorb energy from light, and through the process of photosynthesis, fuel much of our planet.

The organic chemist responsible for this achievement was Robert Burns Woodward, from the Converse Memorial Laboratory at Harvard University. For this, and his other work in the field of organic synthesis, Woodward was awarded the 1965 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Chlorophyll – fuelling our planet.
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Talking about synthesized chlorophyll and photosynthesis, I read an interesting 2011 Economist blog post, Babbage Science and Technology, about work being done around artificial photosynthesis and the creation of the “artificial leaf”. The science-fiction style scenario envisaged from this is a world where roofs of city buildings etc can be covered with “artificial trees” replicating the photosynthesis process to create hydrocarbon fuel directly from sunlight. These “forests” could help offset the emission of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, and create an unlimited supply of fuel for transport – a magical concept.

In the USA, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent in research laboratories in California etc working, in the words of President Obama, on “developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars”.

The potential energy produced by the sun is vast – apparently the energy from the sun hitting the earth in a single hour, exceeds all the energy consumed by humans in an entire year! Imagine if a significant portion of that energy could be harvested in a commercially viable manner. Currently solar energy (in the form of sustainable biomass) provide less that 1.5% of our energy needs, with solar panels contributing less than 0.1%.

Current solar power generators suffer from the fact that the supply of sunlight is not constant, and energy has to be stored in batteries – a wasteful process. What scientists are working on (and what chlorophyll has been quietly doing for millions of years), is to turn the sunlight directly into chemical fuel – a potentially huge paradigm shift in the harvesting of solar energy.

While scientists have already been able to efficiently create fuel from sunlight in laboratory conditions, the problem is that it cannot yet be done at an economically viable cost. The technology is also highly fragile, nowhere near the robustness required for continuous commercial implementation.

So they are looking at nature for inspiration, and more specifically chlorophyll. In the words of Babbage, “chlorophyll acts as a catalyst that drives the oxidation-reduction reaction between carbon dioxide and water to produce carbohydrates and oxygen. In the pursuit of the artificial leaf, then, the main task is to find catalysts that can mimic the intricate dance of electron transfers that chlorophyll makes possible.”

Amazing research is being conducted on this topic, creating and studying different light absorbers, chemical catalysts and membranes to support these. And interestingly, it appears one of the wild cards in this research race is a small research group from Massey University down here in New Zealand. A research team at the university’s Nanomaterials Research Centre, led by Wayne Campbell, has produced a porphyrin dye that works with solar cells based on titanium dioxide. In the lab, these cells are reported to generate electricity 10 times more economically than conventional photovoltaic panels.

I have been unable to find any information on the current status of this research (much of the published results are about 5 years old), but potentially, these porphyrin dyes can become an economically viable catalyst for producing solar fuel for cars and electricity for homes.

It’s exciting stuff, and potentially huge for a greener future (even if some of the green may be artificial)!