Energy Updates: Oil from Algae and Our Electric Power Grid

• It’s known that 4 percent of the DNA of people of European and Asian descent can be traced to Neanderthals. Recent studies show that genes coded for by this Neanderthal DNA have to do with fighting off viruses and bacteria. Native Africans, however, have no Neanderthal DNA. Even though man originated in Africa, those who migrated from Africa to Europe and Asia mated with Neanderthals. The interbreeding probably helped the newcomers to Europe and Asia survive exposure to diseases found in their new environment. (The Week, Sept. 16, 2011; based on research by Peter Parham, Stanford University microbiologist)

• Forty years ago, 42 percent of women married as teenagers; today this number has fallen to 7 percent. Forty years ago 88 percent of women were married by age 24. Today only 24 percent are married by this age. (The Week, Sept. 16, 2011)

• Swiss scientists carried out an extensive study on the number of deaths resulting from the production of different kinds of energy. Mining coal was at the top of the list with 12 deaths a year for every 100 gigawatts of power generated. Oil production was second, with over nine deaths a year, and nuclear was way down the list at 0.73 deaths a year. The scientists also obtained data on the impact of particulate pollution in the U.S. from fossil-fueled power plants. Each year, this kind of pollution is associated with 59,000 cases of acute bronchitis, 603,000 asthma attacks, 30,100 premature deaths, and 5,130,000 lost workdays. (Scientific American, Sept., 2011)

• About 15 years ago, scientists in the U.S. decided that growing algae to produce biofuels was a losing proposition. Today, thanks to new technologies and lots of capital, it’s likely that oil from algae may hit the market in 10 years or so. More than $2.5 billion is being invested to make it happen, including $600 million from ExxonMobil. Companies are using synthetic biology and genetic manipulation to enhance the growth and oil content of certain species of algae. One company claims to have genetically engineered algal strains with an oil content of over 80 percent of their weight, and another company is building a demonstration facility in New Mexico estimated to produce up to 10,000 barrels of oil per day by 2018. A number of small pilot plants are already deriving oil from algae. Whether all this effort results in diminished dependence on oil from hazardous drilling operations remains to be seen. (Science, Sept. 2, 2011)

• Recently a maintenance worker servicing equipment in a substation that was part of the electric power grid in the southwestern U.S. unplugged a monitoring device. The result: a massive power outage affecting part of Southern California, Arizona, and northern Mexico. Over 5 million people were impacted. Two nuclear reactors shut themselves down, flights were grounded, major traffic jams occurred, and people were trapped in elevators. If all this was caused by direct one human error, imagine the mayhem that could result from a cyber-attack on our highly vulnerable electrical grid system. Many experts believe that such could happen in the near future. A year ago cyber-hackers created the “Stuxnet virus,” which was targeted to incapacitate the high-speed centrifuges essential to Iran’s nuclear program. The virus did just what it was programmed to do and the centrifuges spun out of control. Now consider the possibility that cyber-terrorists could just as easily slip a virus into the computer network essential for the operation of our electrical grid. Although the U.S. is racing to make the grid more secure from cyber-terrorism, it will be several years before even partial security can be achieved. (Scientific American, July, 2011; “Havoc in Cyberspace,” http://www.pasadenaweekly, 9-11-11; other sources)