A Food Crisis?

Arguably the biggest current problem for the world is the food supply, and particularly grain. About a third of all wheat and barley exports and about one fifth of the corn comes from Ukraine-Russia, and as you may have noticed, there is currently a war that is becoming bogged down in Ukraine while Russia is being sanctioned. Ukraine plants about 6 million hectares in wheat, and that has to be planted by May. I assume there also has to be some earlier soil preparation so time is running out. On top of that, it appears the weather has been very unkind for grain growing in China as heavy rain delayed planting. China’s wheat crop is the largest in the world, three times greater than the US, and 80% greater than Russia’s, however China remains a net importer and Chinese production this year have been estimated to be reduced by about 20%. Some of the problems for Ukrainian production are obvious, but others less so. Besides the actual problem of planting and managing the crops in a war zone that unfortunately is focusing its attention on some of the major grain growing areas, there is the problem of obtaining sufficient fuel and fertilizer.

The sanctioning of Russian oil means that fuel costs are almost certain to rise, and the turning off of Russian gas turns off the feedstock for the making of the hydrogen and providing the energy for ammonia production, which means that fertilizer in Europe will become very much more expensive. Such problems can be solved. There are other ways to produce the fuel and the fertilizer, but such alternatives cannot be just turned on overnight. Building a new route in the chemical industry takes many years even to build your first conversion plant, and nobody will build one until they see how the first one operates. So for the time being we are stuck with what we have.

The rich countries will grizzle but meet the increased price, but what will the poorer nations do? My guess is they will continue buying from Russia, sanctions or no sanctions. Political niceties go out the window when then choice is to starve.

What can be done? Obviously, ending the war would be a starter, and hopefully that will come to pass, but the various sanctions will stay, so the Russian wheat crop will be unavailable to the West. More interesting is the problem of if the West imposes sanctions on any country buying Russian wheat. If China purchases it, that will relieve the pressure on the rest of the world to some extent because China will get its wheat from somewhere. Fortunately, China has had a policy of storing surplus so its reserves may make a major contribution to easing the problem.

The obvious solution is to increase production elsewhere. At first sight, that is obvious, and in some places probably achievable, such as Sudan and Nigeria, except again part of the reason these places do not grow as much is because they have internal fighting. Climate change is also a big factor. Many countries have marginal production, but it is unclear whether growing conditions will get better or worse. New Zealand provides an example of a further problem. New Zealand is a net wheat importer, even though it can grow its own. The reason it imports is that its farmers can make more money growing something else, and that means if it did switch to wheat production in some regions, it would have to switch off something else and raise the price.

We have to be careful we are not just moving the problem. To switch in some regions that do not grow much at all would require a big investment in harvesting machinery, purchase of seed and fertilizer, and find skilled farmers. Seed is more troublesome than it might seem because seed often carries pathogens that suddenly thrive in a new environment. Thus the purchase of special seed in Bangla Desh in 2016 introduced a fungus that halved overall production. In some cases it may be better off to make the switch in what you grow because there are other flours that can be used, such as from legumes (less nitrogen fertilizer required) or millet. Some farmers could try that, but what happens if they guess wrongly? The invisible hand of the market is not kind to those who guess wrongly, so farmers tend to stick with what they know works well for them. Who carries the risk if we need big change?

We obviously have to do something, but what?

Ebook Discount

From March 24 – 30, Miranda’s Demons will be discounted to 99c on Amazon in the US and UK. In 2285, the 34 exhausts of a badly mauled alien battle fleet are seen travelling at relativistic velocities to end on Miranda, the innermost moon of Uranus. The aliens conquer Mars and take slave labour to repair their ships, seemingly with cooperation from Terran corporations. War follows.

Natasha Kotchetkova, the Commissioner for Defence is faced with an alien race that totally outclasses any Earth military technology. Even if Terran forces can win, thanks to the corporate treachery, who wins the following peace? Meanwhile, Scaevola has followed the aliens, and arrives on Earth to meet his prophesied “second woman in his life: the ugliest woman in the world”.

A hard science fiction epic with 18 major characters, four alien races, several romances, not all of which end well, treachery, and is set variously in 3 continents, the Earth-Moon L-4 space station, Mars, Iapetus, the asteroid belt and Miranda. Book IV of a series, but originally written as a stand-alone.

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00ZH851G8

Solar Energy in India

There is currently a big urge to move to solar energy, and apparently India has decided that solar energy would greatly assist its plans to deal with climate change. However, according to a paper by Ghosh et al.in Environmental Research Letters, there is a minor problem: air pollution. It appears that while India is ranked fifth in the world for solar energy capacity, parts of it, and these tend to be the parts where you need the power, suffer from growing levels of particulate air pollution. There are two problems. First, the particles in the air block sunlight, thus reducing the power that strikes the panels. Second, the particles land on the panels and block the light until someone cleans the detritus off the panels.

I am not sure I understand why, but the impact on horizontal panels ranged from 10% to 16%, but the impact was much greater on panels that track the position of the sun (which is desirable to get the most power) as they suffered a 52% loss of power from pollution. Apparently if it were not for such pollution it was calculated (not sure on what basis – existing panels or proposed panels) to be able to generate somewhere between an additional six to sixteen TWh of solar electricity per year. That is a lot of power.

But if you are reducing the output of your panels by fifty percent, that means also you are doubling the real cost of the electricity from those panels prior to entering the grid because you are getting half the power from the same fixed cost installation. The loss of capacity translates into hundreds of millions of dollars annually. China has the same problem, with some regions twice as badly off as the Indian regions, although care must be taken with that comment because they are not necessarily measured the same way. In all cases, averaging down over area is carried out, but then different people may select different types of area.

So, what can be done about this? The most obvious approach is to alter the sources of the pollution, but this could be a problem. In India, the sources tend to be the use of kerosine to provide lighting and the use of dirty fuel for cooking and heating in rural villages.

The answer is to electrify them, but now the problem is there are 600,000 such villages. Problems in a country like India or China tend to be very large, although the good news is the number of people available to work on them is also very large. Unfortunately, these villages are not very wealthy. If you want to replace home cooking with electricity, and domestic heating with electricity, someone has to pay for electric ranges. One estimate is 80 million of them. Big business for the maker of electric cookers, but who pays for them when the rural people are fairly close to the poverty line. They cook with fuel like biomass that gets smoky because that is cheap or free. Their cookers may even be home-made, but even if not so, they would have to be discarded as they could not be used for electric cooking.

There are claimed to be other benefits for reducing such pollution. Thus reducing air pollution would reduce cloudiness, which means even better solar energy production. It is also claimed that precipitation is inhibited from polluted clouds, so it is concluded that with more precipitation that would wash more pollution from the air. I am not sure I follow that reasoning, because they have already concluded that they will have fewer clouds.

If they removed these sources of air pollution, they calculated that an extra three TWh per year could be generated from flat surface panels, or eight TWh per year could be generated from tracking panels. The immediate goal is apparently to have 100 GW solar installed. It will be interesting to see if this can be achieved. One problem is that while the economics look good in terms of money saved from increased solar energy, the infrastructure costs associated with it were neglected. My guess is the current air pollution will be around for a while. It also shows the weaknesses of many solar energy projects, such as setting up huge farms in the Sahara. How do you stop fine sand coating panels? An army of panel polishers?

Ebook Discount

For a short  time my ebook Spoliation is price reduced on Amazon. Unlike Kindle Countdowns, this discount applies world-wide, and I am experimenting to see how effective this strategy is.

The Board, is a ruthless, shadowy organization with limitless funds that employs space piracy and terrorism. A disgraced Captain Jonas Stryker is acting as an asteroid miner, and when The Board resorts to using a weaponised asteroid to get its way, only Stryker can divert the asteroid. The Board is determined to have Stryker killed, officially he is wanted for murder, so Stryker must expose and destroy this organization to have any future.

A story of greed, corruption and honour, combining science and visionary speculation that goes from the high frontier to outback Australia. The background also gives a scientific perspective on asteroid mining.

Ukraine and NATO Bases

Despite assurances given to Gorbachev there would be no NATO bases on Russia’s border, there they are, in the Baltic states, Poland and Romania. Vladimir Putin is determined to stop Ukraine from having them and considers the possibility of NATO bases in Ukraine comprises a casus belli. The argument of this post is such NATO bases are a disaster waiting to happen and all of them should be removed. Emotion, patriotism, fear, etc have nothing to do with it. The conclusion comes from simple mathematics.

The reason lies in the mathematics of Game Theory, and is closely related to The Prisoner’s Dilemma. The concept of that is as follows. The police arrest two criminals and keep them separate, so they cannot communicate with each other. They have insufficient evidence to get a conviction so each is offered the following deal. If you stay silent, you go free, at least of this charge, but if you confess and give evidence against your partner, you get two years in prison and he gets ten. If you keep silent and he provides evidence against you, you get ten years in prison. What should the prisoner do? The answer is, he should immediately confess and rat in his partner because he cannot trust his partner to take the option that benefits both of them.

A similar situation occurred in the Cold War. Each country had the option of spending big on armaments, or investing the money on its own infrastructure. Declining to spend on the military would lead to a better country and stronger economy, but would leave you far weaker and the opposition could overrun you. Neither side could trust the other, but that scenario favoured the US because its economy was so much stronger. At the end of WW II, Russia had to rebuild everything the Germans destroyed in Russia and that which both destroyed in the Warsaw Pact countries. The US had no damage in WW II, and had built a huge armaments business.

All the ignorant commentators are rubbishing the Russian military. It is clearly facing problems, but so does every country going to war. So, let us assume it is clearly weaker than the US, and let us say war breaks out between them. What should Russia do? The mathematical answer in the current situation is simple: let fly with every nuclear weapon you have.

Again, each side faces two choices: launch everything you have immediately and hope you can take out all the opposition or remain conventional and wait and see. If one side does not launch and the other does, the one side loses everything. If neither side launches, the situation is currently unstable, and the first one to launch wins, if anything in this could be considered a win. If both sides launch, everyone loses. So why did  this not happen during the Cold War? Mainly because both sides were so well separated if major launches were made, the other side had an hour to get its retaliation under way. In effect, the sides were in an indirect communication with each other, and knew what the other was doing. More than once, that hour gave the time to verify that the opposition had not started WW III once an alarm sounded. Those alarms came from instrumental errors, radar glitches, and in one case, even an exercise where they had forgotten to tell the key people it was an exercise. It is too easy for something to go wrong. Each side has to have its nuclear weapons a long way from the other, so there is time to correct a mistake.

The current NATO bases destroy that equilibrium; Russia has no time to think if a missile is launched from them. They cannot tell what is on the warhead. So why were such bases set up? The original idea was they would be forward conventional military bases. According to the treaty signed in 1987, intermediate-range missiles were banned, but in 2019 the US withdrew from that treaty, arguing violations, and that China was not included. Now those bases could be nuclear capable. Russia cannot do anything about those, but it does not need more. If the bases were not there, and if the US had all its nukes on its own territory, and conventional war broke out, Russia can restrain itself from launching, because there is negative information: if there are no missiles launched from the continental US, the US is not starting a nuclear war. Again, there is time to think and indirect communication.

We now see why NATO cannot afford to send aircraft into Ukraine to help the Ukrainians; if they shoot at a Russian aircraft, that is the start of WW III. Accordingly, both sides are trapped in the Prisoner’s Dilemma. If war breaks out, Russia has no option but to incinerate those bases, but that must start the nuclear exchange. Accordingly, it has no option but to try to take out as much of the US as it can before the US can really get involved. That almost certainly won’t work, but there is no other option other than for Russia to totally surrender, and that is not a particularly likely outcome.

So why the bases? To answer that, who benefits? The obvious answer is the US military Industrial complex, which President Eisenhower warned against, and he could be regarded as being fairly knowledgeable about war. The US spends incredible amounts of money on Defence, and they get the most powerful military by far on the planet, but one that can be difficult to use. By enlarging NATO, the US encourages those countries to increase their defence spending, and since an alliance works best with common parts, the US Military Industrial Complex is the major beneficiary of that increased spending. The second beneficiaries are those who supply goods and services to the bases. In the Ukraine, that would be the oligarchs, who run the country. The underlying origin of this crisis is money, and the ordinary Ukrainians will pay with their lives.

Exit the Dinosaurs

According to National geographic, an anniversary is coming. Not sure which anniversary, but it’s a biggie – the anniversary of the extinction of the dinosaurs. Well, at least the anniversary of the Chicxulub crater, which is about 180 km wide. This would be caused by an impactor of about 10 km diameter, which perhaps shows how fierce these impacts were. Of course, there are arguments over whether it was the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, but it certainly would not have helped. It was about the same time that in India the Deccan traps formed, where huge amounts of basalt were extruded out from the mantle.

So, what happens when an asteroid strikes? We have some idea relating to smaller ones because hydrogen bomb tests have provided evidence of the consequences of the localised production of heat equivalent to the low hundreds of Mt of TNT. At the point of impact extremely intense pressure is generated, which is transmitted into each body by waves. As the smaller body enters the major body, all points of contact lead to the generation of pressure waves that radiate into both bodies. Waves from different point sources will lead to vibrations in different directions, the vibrations of the rock become too great and the rock simply pulverises, which leads to the absorption of energy. The next waves have to travel through pulverized material, wave interference results, and huge amounts of energy are absorbed. Modelling from the hydrogen bomb data leads to the following conclusions. At a velocity of 10 km/s, an impactor of diameter of 1 km will generate a crater 12.2 km diameter and 0.6 km deep; an impactor of diameter of 0.1 km would generate a crater of diameter of 2.6 km and depth of 0.55 km. As a final example, with an impact velocity of 5 km/s and an impact diameter of 2 km, the crater diameter would be 11.5 km and of depth 4 km. Once the distance is big enough that the impact acts as a point source, the shock wave continues through to the other side of the body, where it can be reflected, or disrupt the surface. It may be that the reason the Deccan traps occurred at about the same time may be because the asteroid caused the eruption. I think that on Mars the Tharsis volcanic field was caused by the Hellas impactor, and maybe Elysium by the Argyre impact. They are more or less on opposite sides of the planet.

Anyway, the asteroid vaporized just about everything above a layer of granite, and it dug an impressive hole in that too. There was not only the impact, but apparently the seafloor where it landed would have had considerable amounts of gypsum, and that would have vaporized and probably pyrolyzed. The net result was from the combination extreme acid rain, helped by the Deccan Traps, there was ocean acidification, and this led to a collapse of plant production, the base of the food chain. Anything large would die of starvation. The survivors tended to be the small, the rat-sized mammals and birds.

The time taken for extinctions is controversial because there are no continuous fossil beds for the period, and the probability that an animal will be fossilized is very small. Accordingly, there may have been small numbers of animals that lingered on. There was also a general decline before the impact, perhaps because of climate change, and many of the dinosaurs had got so big any minor change would prevent them getting enough food. Prior to the impact, the average temperatures rose rapidly by three to four degrees Centigrade, and that would greatly affect plant production. Plants cannot migrate other than through their seeds being transferred, so it is possible very large numbers of plants were too stressed to be productive. Alternatively, plants may have evolved to be less nutritious. When you are slow moving and need tonnes of food, any small adverse change can be deadly. Marine animals were particularly susceptible, and ichthyosaurs became extinct well before the impact.

We don’t know when the impact occurred to within a few tens of millions of years, so what was that about an anniversary? There is one site in North Dakota where there are fossilized bones of fish, and they perished just as they were speeding up a growth spurt, which would arise due to an increase in the food supply. Bone tissue made during a growth spurt is spongier. That suggests they died in the Northern spring. So we know when in the year, but not which year. Apparently sturgeon and paddlefish died with debris of tektites embedded in their gills. These tektites (which are glassy globs) were thrown up by the heat of the impact, but would start to come back down after about fifteen minutes and would soon stop. For these fish to have tektites embedded, they died almost immediately after the impact. Further, all the bodies face one way in one layer, and the other way in the next layer. There were huge tidal waves sloshing around all the way up to the Dakotas. (Note that this part of North America was a river valley.)

The Southern Hemisphere would have an advantage here, because going into autumn, life is getting ready for winter, it has fattened up, and it is ready to hunker down. That might give some advantages, nevertheless it did not seem to. The extermination of life here was just as severe. Yet oddly enough we have the tuatara in New Zealand, the only remaining species from the order Rhynchocephalia which originated in the Triassic, about 250 million years ago. It is a rather slow-moving animal, so maybe it low energy requirements got it through this disastrous period.

Ebook discount

From March 6 -12, my ebooks at Smashwords will be significantly discounted. The fictional ebooks, which are thrillers and, similar to Andy Weir, with real science in the background include:

Puppeteer:  A technothriller where governance is breaking down due to government debt, and where a terrorist attack threatens to kill tens to hundreds of millions of people and destroy billions of dollars worth of infrastructure.

http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/69696

‘Bot War:  A technothriller set about 8 years later, a more concerted series of terrorist attacks made by stolen drones lead to partial governance breaking down.

Smashwords    https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/677836

Troubles. Dystopian, set about 10 years later still, the world is emerging from anarchy, and there is a scramble to control the assets. Some are just plain greedy, some think corporate efficiency should rule, some think the individual should have the right to thrive, some think democracy should prevail as long as they can rig it, while the gun is the final arbiter.

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/174203

Spoliation. A thriller set about asteroid mining, where some of the miners mysteriously disappear. Then someone tries tο weaponise a large asteroid. A story of greed, corruption and honour, combining science and visionary speculation that goes from the high frontier to outback Australia.

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1090447

There is also the non-fictional “Biofuels”. This gives an overview of the issues involved in biofuels having an impact on climate change. Given that electric vehicles, over their lifetime probably have an environmental impact equivalent to or greater than the combustion motor, given that we might want to continue to fly, and given that the carbon from a combustion exhaust offers no increase in atmospheric carbon levels if it came from biofuel, you might be interested to see what potential this has. The author was involved in research on this intermittently (i.e. when there was a crisis and funding was available) for over thirty years. https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/454344

Some Scientific Curiosities

This week I thought I would try to be entertaining, to distract myself and others from what has happened in Ukraine. So to start with, how big is a bacterium? As you might guess, it depends on which one, but I bet you didn’t guess the biggest. According to a recent article in Science Magazine (doi: 10.1126/science.ada1620) a bacterium has been discovered that lives in Caribbean mangroves that, while it is a single cell, it is 2 cm long. You can see it (proposed name, Thiomargarita magnifica) with the naked eye.

More than that, think of the difference between prokaryotes (most bacteria and single-cell microbes) and eukaryotes (most everything else that is bigger). Prokaryotes have free-floating DNA while eukaryotes package their DNA nucleus and put various cell functions into separate vesicles and can move molecules between the vesicles. But this bacterium cell includes two membrane sacs, only one of which contains DNA. The other sac contains 73% of the total volume and seems to be filled with water. The genome was nearly three times bigger than those of most bacteria.

Now, from Chemistry World. You go to the Moon or Mars, and you need oxygen to breathe. Where do you get it from? One answer is electrolysis, so do you see any problems, assuming you have water and you have electricity? The answer is that it will be up to 11% less efficient. The reason is the lower gravity. If you try to electrolyse water at zero g, such as in the space station, we knew it was less efficient because the gas bubbles have no net force on them. The force arises through different densities generating a weight difference, and the lighter gas rises, but in zero g, there is no lighter gas – they might have different masses, but they all have no weight. So how do they know this effect will apply on Mars or the Moon? They carried out such experiments on board free-fall flights with the help of the European Space Agency. Of course, these free-fall experiments are somewhat brief as the pilot of the aircraft will have this desire not to fly into the Earth.

The reason the electrolysis is slower is because gas bubble desorption is hindered. Getting the gas off the electrodes occurs because there are density differences, and hence a force, but in zero gravity there is no such force. One possible solution being considered is a shaking electrolyser. Next thing we shall see is requests for funding to build different sorts of electrolysers. They have considered using them in centrifuges to construct models to compute what the lower gravity would do, but an alternative might be to have such a process operating within a centrifuge. It does not need to be a fast spinning centrifuge as all you are trying to do is to generate the equivalent of 1 g, Also, one suggestion is that people on Mars or the Moon might want to spend a reasonable fraction of their time inside one such large centrifuge, to help keep the bone density up.

The final oddity comes from Physics World. As you may be aware, according to Einstein’s relativity, time, or more specifically, clocks, run slower as the gravity increases. Apparently this was once tested by taking a clock up a mountain and comparing it with one kept at the base, and General Relativity was shown to predict the correct result. However, now we have improved clocks. Apparently the best atomic clocks are so stable they would be out by less than a second after running for the age of the universe. This precision is astonishing. In 2018 researchers at the US National Institute for Standards and Technology compared two such clocks and found their precision was about 1 part in ten to the power of eighteen. It permits a rather astonishing outcome: it is possible to detect the tiny frequency difference between the two clocks if one is a centimeter higher than the other one. This will permit “relativistic geodesy”, which could be used to more accurately measure the earth’s shape, and the nature of the interior, as variations in density outcrops would cause minute changes in gravitational potential. Needless to say, there is a catch: they may be very precise but they are not very robust. Taking them outside the lab leads to difficulties, like stopping.

Now they have done better – using strontium atoms, uncertainty to less that 1 part in ten to the power of twenty! They now claim they can test for quantum gravity. We shall see more in the not too distant future.