Calling All Geniuses!

Maybe you are an unrecognized genius.  Your friends don’t believe you, but you know – you see things no one else does (good things, of course, not hallucinations).

Now. Here is your moment. As Gizmodo put it, “Someone Go Find a Practical Use for This [a colloquial expression we can’t reprint] Conductive Plastic.” And that “someone” could be you!

We’ll get you started here.  This new plastic is transparent, it conducts electricity and it bends. It also has a really long name: poly(4-glycidyloxy-2,2,6,6-tetramethylpiperidine-1-oxyl).  A touchscreen (that doesn’t break so easily) is one obvious use.  But you are probably already thinking about a half-dozen other possibilities (because you’ve got that kind of mind)!

But we know, you are also the kind of person who likes a challenge – and there IS a challenge with this plastic.  At the moment, it only conducts electricity over VERY small distances – so you’ll have to tackle that.

But imagine the possibilities (made possible by polymers produced through petrochemicals, in this case propylene, and you).  In addition to a more durable screen for smartphones, Gizmodo suggests batteries and medical gear might be landing spots for this new material.

If you’d like to go straight to the science, you can go straight to Science, where the original research was published (though if you are not already a subscriber, you will have to buy the article).  And, good luck.  Let us know what you come up with.

Teaching a robot cat to walk – like a cat!

If you’ve ever watched a robot walk – it’s a little creepy.  It looks a little like us, and yet, it clearly isn’t a human being walking.

And that, is because it doesn’t walk the way we walk.  A robot takes a step, recalculates, takes another step, recalculates, takes another step, and on, and on, and on.   Robot programming turns walking into a series of steps, in order to take steps.

We don’t walk like that.  No living creature moves like that.  And one day, that got some scientists at the University of Southern California (USC) thinking.  What about making a robot, a robot cat to be specific, that walks the way a cat walks?

And what that meant – was instead of making code, you make a spinal cord.  And your building blocks – are artificial neurons, instead of algorithms.

So that’s what they did.  Or, started to do.  Meet Kleo the Robot Cat.

It’s fair to say that at the moment, Kleo is not making any traditional robots quake in their metallic boots.  (You can see Kleo in action here.)  But Kleo is learning to walk, by walking.  Over time, its artificial neurons, its spinal cord – figure out that if this neuron connects to that neuron, and that neuron to this other neuron and so forth – Kleo moves.  The learning is slow, and the walking is slow – but it does learn, by doing – and the walking is in the same way that a cat walks, eventually.

Of course, Nature provides cats and other animals with a spinal cord.  Kleo’s network of neurons is a series of circuit boards, and where you find circuit boards, you find polymers derived from petrochemicals.

Now, will it work in the end?  Too early to tell for that.  But since animals with very tiny brains get around quite well – it may turn out that building a big robot brain, is not the only, or even the best way, to make a walking machine.  A robot that learns how to walk by walking, and learning what works – might be a lot simpler to make than a robot that has to be stuffed full of code to move.

And however they move, it will be awhile before robots look like the real thing – any real thing.  So in the meantime, if you’d like to have a laugh at the expense of our future overlords, take a look at “A Compilation of Robots Falling Down at the DARPA Robotics Challenge.”   Ouch!

Award-Winning New Technology Could Help Reduce C02 Emissions and Increase Fuel Economy

There are more cars on the road than ever before, but CO2 emissions in the U.S. have been steadily declining over the past decade, with 2016 energy-related CO2 emissions 14% below 2005 levels. Although this may seem contradictory, there is a very real reason for this decline in emissions — fuel efficiency technologies.

In 2016, fuel economy rose to an all-time high of 24.8 miles per gallon average and has resulted in the prevention of 130 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions—equivalent to a year’s worth of electricity use for 20 million homes.

These improvements are thanks in part, to engineers redesigning vehicles with such fuel-efficiency innovations as gasoline direct injection engines paired with turbocharging, which results in smaller engines that burn less gas while retaining power. Transmissions with more gears (as many as 10) and continuously variable transmissions help the vehicles operate more efficiently. Lighter materials, such as aluminum and high-strength steel, cut down on fuel use as well. Smaller technical improvements also help make a difference, including better tires and air-conditioning systems, glazed windows to keep out heat, and idle stop-start systems that turn the engine off when a vehicle is standing still.

Honeywell and Volkswagen are leading the pack in these technologies and have partnered to create a new technology that can improve fuel economy by up to 15%.

Honeywell received a 2017 Automotive News Premier Automotive Suppliers’ Contribution to Excellence (PACE) “Innovation Partnership Award” with VW for the unique level of collaboration demonstrated in developing their Variable Nozzle Turbine (VNT) turbocharger for gasoline engines, that helps VW achieve best-in-class fuel economy in a cost-effective manner suited for high-volume production vehicles.

The first launch for this new generation of fuel efficient gasoline engines took place in 2016 with many more set to follow in the next three years.

Socially Responsible Investing Comes of Age

By MICHAEL IACHINI

APRIL 19, 2018

There’s never been a more opportune time to sync your personal values with your investments. Socially responsible investing (SRI)—which seeks to effect positive social change while also generating competitive financial returns—has emerged as a significant, grass-roots trend. According to a 2016 study by US SIF: The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, 80% of fund managers who have incorporated such strategies into their portfolios did so in response to requests from individual and institutional investors.1

There also has never been more choice. From 2012 to 2014, the number of U.S. investment funds that incorporated environmental, governmental or social criteria increased by 28%, and their assets quadrupled to more than $4.3 trillion over the same period.2 What’s more, great strides in data collection and a slew of new online tools have made identifying such funds a matter of a few clicks and keystrokes. For example, Schwab’s exchange-traded fund (ETF) screener and mutual fund screener both have a “socially conscious” filter that allows clients to search for and compare SRI funds.

But let’s get down to brass tacks: When it comes to returns, can such funds really hold their own against their less socially responsible competition? Let’s take a look.

The SRI advantage

Far from compromising on returns, SRI funds may offer a competitive advantage. The MSCI KLD 400 Social Index, for example, averaged an annual rate of return of 10.44% from 1990 through January 2017, compared with 9.95% for the S&P 500® Index over the same period.3

And according to data from Morningstar, SRI mutual funds have consistently kept pace with their non-SRI counterparts in the short, medium and long terms (see “Doing good does well,” below).

Doing good does well

Socially conscious funds delivered competitive returns over both the short and long terms.

Source: Charles Schwab Investment Advisory, Inc., with data from Morningstar, as of 3/31/2018. Returns represent the average annualized performance of U.S. equity open-end socially responsible and non–socially responsible mutual funds. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

And although SRI funds were once criticized for their relatively high fees, they’ve become more competitive over time. Out of the 225 Morningstar-listed mutual funds that self-identify as socially conscious, nearly half had lower expense ratios than their category’s average.4

Building a values-based portfolio

One challenge to creating a values-based portfolio is achieving adequate diversification, particularly when it comes to socially conscious bonds. That’s because the lion’s share of the U.S. bond market is made up of Treasuries and mortgage-linked bonds—investments whose impact is difficult to measure, making it challenging to apply SRI standards.

That said, there are SRI funds for corporate bonds, international stocks, and U.S. large- and small-cap stocks. There are even balanced funds that blend socially responsible bonds and stocks within a single investment vehicle.

However, while it’s easy enough to find a like-minded ETF if you’re interested in, say, sustainable energy, what if you have multiple goals—pinpointing sustainable-energy companies with boards that reflect gender and racial diversity, for example? To fulfill this level of specificity, you may need to do a bit of digging. Fortunately, most socially conscious funds are eager to advertise their bona fides on their websites.

The future of investing?

As the once-niche market of SRI investing continues to gain steam and demonstrate solid long-term returns, we’re likely to see more widespread adoption of these strategies in the future. For example, in 2015 the Department of Labor responded to popular demand and cleared the way for managers of 401(k) accounts and pension funds—whose combined assets total roughly $6.7 trillion5—to consider socially conscious factors in their investment decisions.

Millennials, too, are fueling the SRI trend. One study found that two-thirds of those age 22 to 34 are likely to invest in a company well-known for its social responsibility, compared with less than half of those over age 34.6 And as Millennials continue to grow and mature as investors, the SRI market will likely grow with them.

12016 Report on US Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing Trends.
2Ibid.
3Morningstar, as of 01/31/2017.
4Ibid.
52016 Investment Company Fact Book, Investment Company Institute.
6Aflac Corporate Social Responsibility Survey, 10/2015.

Important Disclosures

Investors should carefully consider information contained in the prospectus, or if available, the summary prospectus, including investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses. You can request a prospectus by calling Schwab at 800-435-4000. Please read the prospectus carefully before investing.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Investment returns will fluctuate and are subject to market volatility, so that an investor’s shares, when redeemed or sold, may be worth more or less than their original cost. Shares are bought and sold at market price, which may be higher or lower than the net asset value (NAV).

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

Diversification strategies do not ensure a profit and do not protect against losses in declining markets.

Charles Schwab Investment Advisory, Inc., is an affiliate of Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.

Indexes are unmanaged, do not incur management fees, costs and expenses, and cannot be invested in directly.

The S&P 500 Index is a market-capitalization-weighted index comprising 500 widely traded stocks chosen for market size, liquidity and industry-group representation.

The MSCI KLD 400 Social Index is a capitalization weighted index of 400 US securities that provides exposure to companies with outstanding Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) ratings and excludes companies whose products have negative social or environmental impacts.

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Not Always Tax Free: 7 Municipal Bond Tax Traps

By COOPER J HOWARD

MARCH 09, 2018

Key Points
  • Although municipal bonds pay interest that is generally exempt from federal and state income taxes, it’s not always free from all taxes.
  • We identify some of the taxes that could apply if you buy municipal bonds and next steps you may want to consider.

Investors often think of municipal bonds, which are sold by local and state governments to fund public projects like building new schools and repairing city sewer systems, as being totally tax free—but that’s not always the case.

While the interest payments on munis are usually exempt from federal income taxes, other taxes may apply. It’s important to know the rules, because municipal bonds are one of the few investments available to income-oriented investors looking to reduce their income tax bills. Here are seven types of taxes that could apply if you buy muni bonds.

1. De minimis tax. If you acquire a muni at a market discount, you may have to pay taxes on the difference between the par value and the acquisition price. The de minimis rule says that for bonds purchased at a discount of less than 0.25% for each full year from the time of purchase to maturity, gains resulting from the discount are taxed as capital gains rather than ordinary income.

For example, take a bond that matures in 10 years with a face value of 100. The de minimis “breakpoint” on this bond is 97.5 (100 – [0.25 × 10 years]). If you bought this bond for less than 97.5, you would be required to pay ordinary income tax on the discount. The tax rate on ordinary income is generally higher than that on capital gains.

What you can do: To avoid the de minimis tax rule, consider purchasing bonds priced at par or a premium to their face value. Paying a premium may mean having to make adjustments to your tax filing, but the associated tax benefits more than offset the added complication, in our view. In addition, if a bond is selling at a premium, it’s likely because it is offering a high coupon rate.

2. Alternative minimum tax. There are two parallel income tax systems in the United States: ordinary income tax and alternative minimum tax (AMT), which disallows a number of deductions that are allowed in the ordinary income tax code. Taxpayers must calculate their tax under each system, then pay whichever is higher—ordinary or AMT.

Income from some municipal bonds—for example, those that fund stadiums, airports or more business-like enterprises—might be subject to AMT. If you have to pay AMT and hold such a bond, your interest income would generally be taxed at the applicable AMT rate—which could be 26% or more, if you’re in the AMT exemption phase-out range. Effectively, that means the yield on a municipal bond paying 2.50% would drop to 1.85%. The recently passed tax legislation increased the phase-out thresholds for AMT to $1 million for joint filers, up from $160,900—meaning fewer filers will be subject to AMT under the new tax laws.

What you can do: For bonds held at Schwab, you can find out if a municipal bond is subject to AMT by accessing the “Research” page after logging into schwab.com, searching for a municipal bond and viewing its “Security Description” page. You can also contact a Schwab Fixed Income Specialist at 877-566-7982.

3. Increase in taxation of Social Security benefits. Although municipal bonds generally aren’t subject to federal taxes, the IRS does include income from such bonds in your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) when determining how much of your Social Security benefit is taxable. If half of your Social Security benefit plus other income, including tax-exempt municipal bond interest, amounts to more than $44,000 for a joint return ($34,000 for individual), up to 85% of your Social Security benefits may be taxable.

What you can do: If you are receiving Social Security benefits, we suggest reviewing IRS Publication 915, “Social Security and Equivalent Railroad Retirement Benefits,” which discusses the taxation of retirement benefits, to determine how this might apply to your individual situation.

4. Increase in Medicare premiums. If you’re covered by Medicare, the federally tax-exempt interest from municipal bonds may increase the amount you pay for Medicare Part B or Medicare prescription drug coverage. If you’re married and filing jointly and your MAGI is more than $170,000 ($85,000 for single filers), you will be required to pay an additional amount for Medicare Part B and Medicare prescription drug coverage.

To determine your Medicare premiums, the Social Security Administration generally uses your most recent federal tax return. For example, to determine 2018 monthly adjustment amounts, the Social Security Administration would use your tax return filed in 2017 for tax year 2016. You can learn more about Medicare premiums in the Social Security Administration publication “Medicare Premiums: Rules For Higher-Income Beneficiaries.

What you can do: We don’t believe paying an additional Medicare premium justifies not investing in municipal bonds. Given that your MAGI will also include income from other sources, such as dividend income and interest income from taxable bonds, avoiding municipal bonds will not necessarily allow you to avoid the increase in Medicare premiums. Also, investing in zero-coupon bonds likely won’t allow you to avoid paying higher premiums, because the part of the increase in the zero-coupon bonds’ value may be included in the calculation to determine your Medicare premiums.

5. Capital gains tax. We generally suggest individual investors hold a bond until maturity. However, if you need to sell earlier and you receive a price greater than your cost basis—your acquisition price after adjusting for any premiums paid or discounts received—the gain will be subject to capital gains tax.

What you can do: Determining cost basis for an individual bond can get complicated, as there are special reporting rules that govern the adjustments to a bond’s acquisition price. For bonds held at Schwab, you can find your adjusted cost basis on the “Positions” page after you log into schwab.com.

6. State income tax. If you purchase a bond from your home state, generally the interest payments you receive will be exempt from state income taxes. However, interest paid on bonds from outside of your home state typically will be subject to state income tax.

What you can do: If you live in a state with low tax rates or one that issues a minimal amount of municipal bonds, we would suggest looking outside your home state. The added benefits of diversification and higher yields might make up for the hit you would take by paying state income taxes.

7. Taxable municipal bonds. A small minority of munis are taxable. For example, interest paid on bonds issued to help fund an underfunded pension plan or bonds issued under the Build America Bonds (BABs) program is federally taxable. Taxable muni bonds generally yield more than tax-free bonds to make up for the difference.

What you can do: For investors in lower tax brackets and investing in taxable accounts, or those investing in either Roth or traditional IRA accounts, we believe taxable municipal bonds can make sense compared to other taxable bonds because, historically, munis have exhibited stronger credit characteristics than corporate bonds of comparable ratings.

The bottom line is that municipal bonds offer significant tax advantages and could make sense in the portfolios of many income-focused investors. However, the details matter. If you are highly tax-sensitive and would like to invest in these securities, you will want to make sure you understand how the tax traps mentioned above might affect your portfolio.

If you have questions about your portfolio, you could consult IRS Publication 550, “Investment Income and Expenses,” or check in with your tax advisor.

Important Disclosures
The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market or economic conditions. Data contained herein from third party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

Fixed income securities are subject to increased loss of principal during periods of rising interest rates. Fixed-income investments are subject to various other risks including changes in credit quality, market valuations, liquidity, prepayments, early redemption, corporate events, tax ramifications and other factors. Lower-rated securities are subject to greater credit risk, default risk, and liquidity risk.

Tax-exempt bonds are not necessarily a suitable investment for all persons. Information related to a security’s tax-exempt status (federal and in-state) is obtained from third-parties and Schwab does not guarantee its accuracy. Tax-exempt income may be subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). Capital appreciation from bond funds and discounted bonds may be subject to state or local taxes. Capital gains are not exempt from federal income tax.

This information is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax, legal or investment planning advice. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, Schwab recommends consultation with a qualified tax advisor, CPA, financial planner or investment manager.

Diversification strategies do not ensure a profit and do not protect against losses in declining markets.

The Schwab Center for Financial Research is a division of Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.

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A greener cup of joe – thanks to a truly recyclable paper cup

Ever get a cup of coffee to go?

You’ve got plenty of company if your answer was yes.

So much company in fact, that here in the U.S., we go through more than 50 BILLION paper cups every year – which makes for a very big pile.

Not all of those cups are for coffee, but since Americans drink more than 400 million cups of coffee a day – a lot of them were holding coffee before they hit the trash bin.

That’s not because nobody cares about recycling – it’s because today’s paper coffee cup is pretty tough to recycle.  If it were only paper, recycling wouldn’t be a problem – but holding your coffee in your hand would be.  Paper and hot coffee are not a good combination.  So the paper cup of today has a lining that keeps the coffee out of your lap – but that lining also keeps the cup out of the recycling in most places.

But now, from the chemistry lab at BASF, comes an answer:  a new lining for the old paper cup – made from a water-based polymer.  This polymer (a fancy word for plastic) keeps the coffee in the cup, same as always.  But where today’s lining clogs up the filters used in recycling paper – when you’ve finished this new cup of joe, that new polymer makes for smooth sailing through the recycling plant’s filters.

So keep an eye for that new cup at your favorite coffee shop.  Oh, and when you’re done, don’t forget to recycle it.

By the way, if you’re wondering how the chemists did it, here’s the short answer:  the secret is a polyacrylate coating – and that’s made, after a few chemical reactions, from propylene, one of the basic petrochemicals.

Clean air, merci beaucoup

Four hundred million catalytic converters is a lot of clean air.

That’s because a catalytic converter cleans your car or truck’s exhaust as you drive (and these days, just about everything on the road has one).

Now these particular 400 million converters were turned out by BASF, the chemicals company – and their plant in Huntsville, Alabama is where they make more of them than any other BASF location in North America.  So naturally, they had a bit of a celebration.

To mark a production milestone, yes, but also to take note of the jobs created in Huntsville (more than 650), taxes paid (more than $1.6 million a year), and the fact that the plant is an officially certified Virtually Zero Waste Facility (which means, yep, they don’t waste much).

And, should you be wondering, the catalytic converter first hit the road in 1975.  But the original concept goes back to the 1950s – the work of a French war hero (WWI), engineer, and naturalized American citizen, Eugene Houdry.  Thanks Eugene, and thanks BASF.

What’s black and black and paved all over?

We’ve got more than 2.7 million miles of paved roads in the U.S. More than 90 percent of those roads, are paved with asphalt.

And here are two things about that asphalt, you might not know:

Asphalt is made from oil.  Not a lot of it, but the bitumen made from oil is the essential ingredient that holds all the other ingredients together (those other ingredients being mostly sand and stone and gravel).

And, asphalt is recyclable.  Very recyclable.  When a street needs repaving, you grind off the old asphalt pavement, and you can use all of the old, to make new asphalt pavement (and almost all of it is reused).

Alright, since those were short – here’s a bonus fact about asphalt:  It’s been around a long time.  The asphaltologists at the National Asphalt Pavement Association, report it was first used to build roads in Babylon.  Ancient Babylon – around 2600 hundred years ago.

(And if you’re hunting through a college catalog looking for the Asphaltology Department – ok, we just invented that.)

Various twists, turns and 2500 years or so later – and we have our paved roads of today.  That history, by the way, includes the legacy of John McAdam, who came pretty close to the making of the modern road, and gave his name to “macadam”, which had the rocks and the gravel, but not the asphalt, and which was the top-of-the-line in the early 1800s.

Our asphalt roads date back to the 1920s, though hopefully your roads have been resurfaced since then.

And the same oil that makes those asphalt roads possible, also probably makes it possible for your car to drive on them.  Kinda cool.

DEEP THINKING: HIGH TECH ON THE HIGH SEAS

Think of it as an artificial iceberg.  When an oil tanker is fully loaded, three-quarters of it is invisible, underwater.

So when the supertanker TAQAH was headed for the Port of Long Beach, there was a problem.  Fully loaded, the bottom of the TAQAH would be less than 10 feet from the bottom – and when you’re talking about a ship that is more than 1,000 feet long, carrying more than 300,000 tons – being a few feet from running aground is a little close for comfort.

That is, it WAS too close for comfort.

Then Andeavor and the Port of Long Beach put technology on the job.  Instead of the traditional method of matching ship to harbor:  a close look at the waves, the charts and having to leave a large guesstimated margin for error – they used PROTIDE and the “Octopus”.

PROTIDE is software that uses wave and weather data, combined with the particular characteristics of each individual ship (like its potential “pitch and roll”).  PROTIDE makes predictions; the Octopus is motion detection gear and software that looks at what is actually happening as a ship is coming into harbor and compares those results to the predicted ones.

As a ship approaches port, PROTIDE is run a few days in advance.  When the harbor pilot who brings the ship into port, boards the ship, he or she brings the Octopus along, and that’s hooked up on board to provide real time information.  That means less guessing – and a much more exact match between the water depth in a specific port, and the depth of a specific ship, with a specific cargo.

And – that marriage of high tech and high seas has been a very happy marriage indeed.  Having tested (and tested and tested) PROTIDE and the Octopus on smaller tankers coming into Long Beach – this year, all 300,000-plus tons of the TAQAH sailed successfully into the Port of Long Beach, with seven precisely- and safely-measured feet to spare.

That was the first time, by the way, in the 107-year history of the Port of Long Beach that a VLCC (“very large crude carrier”) sailed in, as deep in the water as the shipping channel actually goes – instead of having to bring in the big ships more lightly loaded to allow for that guesstimated margin of error.  And that’s not just a remarkable technological feat.  Each extra foot of draft (meaning how much deeper the ship sits in the water) for an oil tanker, means it can safely and efficiently carry more cargo, as much as 40,000 barrels of oil per each extra foot.

Being able to use the maximum capacity of the harbor – means less need for dredging (which is expensive and sometimes complicated) – and less need to unload some cargo offshore to lighten a ship before entry (which is definitely complicated and time-consuming).

As PROTIDE is refined, Andeavor and Long Beach are planning to make this SOP, Standard Operating Procedure.  And ports around the country are keeping a close eye on Long Beach, with a view toward potentially bringing this new technology to harbors nationwide.

The OTHER March Madness

It’s nearly the end of March Madness for 2018, and you’ve been steeped in college hoops for a month.  So let’s see if you know the answer to THIS basketball question:

What team was national champion six years in a row, and 11 times altogether?

Nope, we’re not thinking of the Celtics, or the Lakers, or the Bulls.  The answer – is the Sixers.  But not the Seventy-Sixers – the Sixty-Sixers!  The Phillips 66ers.

And yes, that’s “Phillips”, as in Phillips 66, the global energy company.  This story begins back before the NBA, when the next stop after college ball was the AAU, the Amateur Athletic Union.

Phillips wasn’t the only business to field a basketball team.  The 66ers matched up with teams like the Peoria Caterpillars, Denver-Chicago Trucking and the Buchan Bakers.  But at their best, there was nobody like the 66ers.  During those six years they were national champions (1943-48), the team record was 241-24.  Not even the Golden State Warriors can match that.

The game was a little different in the ‘40s and ‘50s than it is today.  No three balls, for instance.  But watch a little 66er video, and you’ll see some slick ball movement and sweet mid-range jumpers.

To watch the video, click here.

And it wasn’t all old school.  Bob Kurland, the first player to dunk, back in 1944 when he played for Oklahoma State; Kurland went on to play for – the Phillips 66ers.  And Hank Luisetti, who the San Francisco Chronicle described this way, “Imagine a basketball player from 80 years ago who compares to … Stephen Curry. … He dribbled behind his back, fired no-look passes and drove the lane with either hand” – Luisetti also logged a year as a 66er, in the ’41-42 season.

Of course, the 66ers weren’t just basketball players.  They were working for the Phillips Petroleum Company (as it was known back then).  As Bill Martin told the Oklahoma City News, “I got $125 a month, worked all day and played basketball at night.”  Burdie Haldorson (who also played on the U.S. Olympic team that won gold in 1956) explained, “Phillips offered me the chance to continue playing basketball, as well as a good job. … we reported to work every day and practiced after work.”

The first 66ers hit the court in 1921, and with a couple of stops and starts, Phillips fielded a team through to 1968.  And as it turned out, the 66ers were a pretty successful bunch off the court too.  Over the years, the 66ers roster included four company presidents: Boot Adams (President, 1934-39), Paul Endacott (President, 1951-67 and Naismith National Hall of Fame Inductee in 1972), Bill Martin (President, 1971-74) and Pete Silas (President, 1982-94).

Petrochemicals Are an Astronaut’s Best Friend

When you think of space travel you probably think of high-tech rocket launchers, moon walks and billions of dollars in NASA research. But did you know that space travel wouldn’t be possible without fuels and petrochemicals? And I’m not just referring to the rocket fuel used to propel the rockets into outer space. Without petrochemicals, astronauts wouldn’t be able to survive the harsh environment of space. Here’s a quick look at some of the ways petrochemicals make space travel possible:

  • Stronger Helmets and Visors: The helmets and visors that astronauts wear in space are made from polycarbonate, which is a high-tech polymer (that is, plastic) used in bullet-proof glass. Because of these plastics, astronauts are able to see their surroundings clearly without losing oxygen and they are protected from potentially dangerous and fast-moving space debris.
  • High Tech Space Suits: Orbiting around the Earth, conditions can be as cold as minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade and as hot as 250 degrees in sunlight. Spacesuits protect astronauts from those extreme temperatures, while also supplying them with oxygen to breath and, like their helmets, protecting them from flying debris. Modern space suits are composed of 14 different layers of synthetic materials, most of which use petrochemicals as the primary building blocks. These layers do everything from allowing the suit to be fire resistant, to protecting from harmful radiation, to enhancing mobility and comfort.
  • Space Shuttle Seating: The seats in a spaceship are for more than just lounging around. A space shuttle’s main landing gear touches down on the runway at about 214 to 226 MPH so you better hope those seats are soft. To counteract these hard landings, NASA developed temper foam (also used in your Memory Foam mattress!) to help blunt the impact of landings. This open-cell polyurethane-silicon plastic makes it easier for astronauts to travel into space, and back again without getting injured (and in relative comfort).

The Spacecraft itself: Aluminum was always the primary material in the construction of spacecraft during the early days of the space program. However, aluminum does not adequately protect the spacecraft from dangerous cosmic radiation, which would make longer space travel and habitation impossible. However, studies found that plastics provide effective shielding against radiation hazards and could help reduce risks to astronauts while exploring the next frontiers of space.  So keep an eye out for the next generation of plastics in the next generation of spacecraft.

3 innovations set to make your car’s engine cleaner, more efficient

The internal combustion engine (aka, the thing under the hood of most cars) started taking shape in the 1700s, so it’s been around for a while.  But that doesn’t mean it’s been standing still the entire time.

Engines have gotten bigger – like the V-12 in your Ferrari or Lamborghini.  Engines have gotten smaller – like the wee two-cylinder powering up a lawn mower.  Engines have gotten cooler – like the V-8 in a Corvette or a Mustang.  And engines have gotten weirder – like the Lancia Delta S4 (which really, looks like a droid more than an engine).

Engines have also gotten more efficient and cleaner over the years – and another round of those improvements is on the way.  Which is good news, because that means the cars most of us drive today – and the cars most of us are going to be driving tomorrow – are going to use less gas, and produce fewer emissions.

First, Mazda announced a “new compression ignition engine…20 percent to 30 percent more fuel efficient than the…automaker’s current engines,” according to Reuters.  Like a diesel engine, it uses compression to ignite the fuel, rather than spark plugs.  Unlike diesel, the new engine runs cleaner and adds the spark plugs back in, for use when they are more effective, like driving in low temperatures.

Second, Rolls Royce announced a new turbocharger, with an electric boost.  Electrically-assisted turbocharging makes for an engine that responds more quickly and uses fuel more efficiently – which is a pretty ideal combination for anything powered by an engine (and this engine can be used on land, in a boat, and in emergency generators).

And last, a team of researchers from around the country, led by the University of Houston, announced that it’s working to develop a new catalytic converter (aka, the thing under the car that turns engine exhaust into nitrogen and oxygen, water and carbon dioxide).  That’s a good thing twice over:  a better catalytic converter means cleaner air, but it turns out that some next-generation engine technologies may require a next-generation converter too.

Now, you can’t walk into a showroom and find any of this yet.  But these are all based on real-world technologies – and long before you’ll be asking Scotty to beam you up, you’ll be out in your new ride.

The wheels on the bus make the world go round

25 million kids get to school each day (and home again) on a school bus.

And how do those school buses get to school?  Almost every one of them is fueled by diesel.

Yep, without the diesel fueling these buses, a lot of parents would be scrambling to get their kids to and from school about 180 days a year (your average school year).

That’s a lot to be thankful for right there (especially for the kids that don’t really have a Plan B for getting to school otherwise).

But it turns out there’s other good news about school buses.

Like this (don’t take it personally): “Students are about 70 times more likely to get to school safely when taking a school bus instead of traveling by car,”* according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

And did you know about the “school bus effect?”  It turns out that school buses not only help kids get to school, they help kids STAY in school.  From EdSource, “Students who ride the school bus in the critical first year — kindergarten – are absent less often and have lower odds of being chronically absent, a key indicator of future academic success…”**

Not bad for a big yellow bus.

It could be that one day, very far in the future, kids will get to skip over the bus stop by strapping on their jet packs and flying off to school. And no, they will probably never step into the transporter room at home and get beamed to school (although that would make life a lot easier when they forget their homework or their lunch. Just beam over a couple of PB&Js.)

But the future – tomorrow, and as a practical matter, for years to come– is probably going to look pretty much like today.  Which is to say, if your kids ride a bus to school, chances are, it’ll be running on diesel fuel.  And it’ll be yellow.

Say goodbye to the plaster cast

It started with the story of a baby girl who was born with a hip problem (“hip dysplasia,”). Her “treatment,” which began at three months, involved being hung upside down so that her leg would pull out of its wrong position – something so painful, she had to be given morphine.

Next in this six month regimen, her legs were put into plaster casts, with a wooden bar from left foot to right foot, to keep her from moving.  As she grew, every six weeks she went back into the hospital to have the old casts cut off, and to have new casts and a bar put on.

In the end, the outcome was successful. But not surprisingly, her dad wondered if there was something better.

Now, Ron Taylor and his colleagues at Torc2 (Coventry, England) have come up with that something better: a novel blend of petroleum-based wax and thermoplastic for casts, splints, even the connectors for prosthetic limbs.

They started with thermoplastic, because it softens when heated, but becomes solid when cool.  This particular thermoplastic blend can be warmed on a person’s body, in just the spot where a cast is needed, for example.  Then while it is soft, the doctor can shape it to a perfect fit.  And when it cools down, that plastic cast is solid and sturdy and ready to protect that broken arm or leg.

And why the wax?  Because heating thermoplastic on a person’s arm or leg might burn the skin.  Blending in that wax, means the plastic can be warmed and softened at a lower temperature that is safe for patients, while still allowing it to be molded precisely to where it is needed.

These high-tech thermoplastic blends can be heated, shaped and cooled to solid, over and over again – so adjustments as a baby girl grows, for example, don’t require returning over and over again to an operating room.  And reshaping, instead of replacing casts, will not only be simpler to do, it will be much less expensive for patients as well.

Thermoplastic blends make the new treatments possible, and what makes thermoplastic blends possible, are petroleum and natural.

If George Jetson had been a farmer…


Driverless vehicles are headed off road.

Not for recreation though.  This is all about work, because these driverless vehicles are farm tractors.

Yes, the driverless tractor is coming to a furrow near you.  Mahindra is bringing the first version to market next year – starting in India, and then available worldwide.

Like the driverless car, in the beginning the farmer will be the “driver”, but not driving.  Next stage will be the remote-operated tractor; and in the end, the tractor will be programmed to head out on its own in the morning, and come back when the day’s work is done.

There is plenty of work on a farm that requires a farmer’s touch.  But driving a tractor back and forth across a field, and another field, and another – doesn’t have to be in that category.  The driverless tractor just frees up the farmer for all the other work that nobody but she, or he, can do.

As you’d expect with any driverless vehicle, Mahindra’s tractor uses GPS to steer itself – but being a tractor, it faces some challenges you don’t see much on your typical street.  So this tractor can reach the end of a crop row, turn, and head precisely back down the next row – row after row after row.  And when it makes each turn, this tractor can lift the plow or harrow or whatever tool it is using, make the turn and drop it back down in the next row.

And, if you’re envisioning a rogue tractor, something out of a Stephen King novel – not to worry.  These tractors feature a geofence lock, so they can’t go beyond the boundaries of the farm, and a remote off switch, so a farmer can stop the engine and the tractor, should there be an emergency.