Hot Lava (keeps us warm at night)!

If you’ve been keeping warm with natural gas, or just firing up the stove at night to make dinner, you might want to take a moment to be thankful for – volcanoes.  Because without “Hot Lava” (and thank you, B-52s), there might be a lot less natural gas (at least in the United States).

This news comes from scientists at Rice University (with a little help from Shell), and tells a story that goes back to the time of the dinosaurs.  Or more precisely, the end of the time of the dinosaurs – the Cretaceous Period, if you remember your paleontology.

We give you a link to the deep science version of this story below, but here’s the ten second synopsis:

During the Cretaceous, there was a time of the volcanoes – hundreds of volcanoes erupting over millions of years, along what would become the West Coast of the United States.  From those volcanoes came massive amounts of ash (and lava too, of course), carried by the wind and dumped over what would become the western Midwest, from Texas to Montana.

But in those days, instead of Texas and Montana, there was ocean – since much of our continent was underwater.  And while volcanic ash is not something most of us would like to find on our plates, it’s a tasty dish (or some of the stuff in that ash is) for some microorganisms, like the phytoplankton that live in the ocean.

So the phytoplankton go on an eating binge (for millions of years), and since they are the starting point in the ocean food chain – everybody and everything underwater also eats well (for millions of years).  And when, in the way of the world, those plants and animals die, fall to the bottom, are covered in sediment, and so forth, over and over and over again – one result of all that carbon (our planet being home to carbon-based life) pressed under the surface is – vast deposits of natural gas.

Which eventually means that when the United States-to-be emerges from under the ocean and dries out – and then (millions of years later), we humans show up – an abundant supply of natural gas is waiting for us, in shale fields from Texas to Montana.  (And although this study didn’t look further east, it may be the same for that Marcellus shale gas field that runs through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio.)

It IS still a mystery as to what exactly did in the dinosaurs.  It may have been volcanoes that finished off T-rex and company.  But now it’s no mystery who many of us have to thank for a warm house in the winter or a roast chicken in the oven – volcanoes!

(And if you want to go deeper into the science, the Rice team published their report on Nature.com.)

Drones and 3D printing AND fixing potholes?

Picture this:  a drone with cameras, featuring pothole-recognition software – spots a bit of damage on the highway.  A repair drone is sent out, equipped with a 3D asphalt printer to lay down some fresh pavement and presto, it’s smooth sailing (well, driving) once again.

How cool is that?  Very cool.  And while it isn’t road ready yet, it’s coming.

Still in the development stage, our compatriots across the pond at the University of Leeds are the ones working on this solution to a rough ride (proof that potholes respect no national boundaries, we suppose).  But they have built a test version, and its repair work is accurate to within one MILLIMETER (that’s about the thickness of a credit card) – which sounds pretty precise for street work.

So, city potholes?

Check.

Country potholes?

Check.

Car-eating potholes?

Well, maybe not.  Not yet, anyhow.

Personally though, we think a drone would look pretty good in one of those fluorescent safety vests.  The one challenge left?  A safety drone to drop (and pick up) those orange cones, to mark off the pothole while it’s being filled.

There’s more too.  The Pothole Patrol drones are part of a larger project on “self-repairing cities” – which might include robots that would “live” inside utility pipes, inspecting, reporting and even repairing leaks – drones that could drop down on a street light and replace a burned-out bulb – and probably other things we haven’t even thought of yet.  So if you’ve got an idea, now is the time to work on that drone to swoop down and pick up dog poop from the sidewalk, or….

“At a gas station, some of Reno’s best Mexican food”

So you’re on the way out of town in Reno, Nevada.  Wherever you’re going next, it’s probably a drive – so you want to fill up before you head out.

Now it could be that you’re flush, and you want to treat yourself before you hit the road.  Or it could be that you’re busted, and you need almost every penny from the change dish, from down between the seats, from your coat pocket – to cover gas money.

Either way, you can get some of the best Mexican food in town AND a full tank of gas, all in one affordable stop.  Just set your GPS for Burrito Express and Valero, on East Fourth Street.

This is a Mexican place, inside a convenience store, inside a Valero station – so, this is road trip food, to go.  But as the Reno Gazette-Journal ranks it, you’ll be going happy, if you’re leaving from Burrito Express:

“The asada is roasty from the grill, the mellower buche bedazzled with juicy pops of fat.”  (Ok, truthfully, if their reporter had stopped here, we’d be headed to the car already.  But there’s more.)

“The quesadilla?  It’s immense…Sweet, savory, caramelized pastor (with traditional pineapple chunks) spills from the quesadilla triangles;  ropes of cheese stretch between…”

“The torta, slicked by the grill, also can barely contain itself.  In fact, to get a handle on this bad boy, I have to eat some of the tender pork loin and grilled onion rounds before I take a bite.”

(Oh, and we hear the gasoline is top tier too.)

That, spells r-o-a-d t-r-i-p to us.

You can read the full review in the Reno Gazette Journal.

You can try the food for yourself, at the Valero station, 2500 E. Fourth Street, Reno.

And if you’ve got a favorite gas station/restaurant combo of your own (in Reno, or anywhere else), let us know.  One day, you might be reading about YOUR place on this page.

“Which New Car Tech Features Are Actually Good?”

That’s the question Road and Track asked in a recent story.  Where’s the line between the dashboard* display that shows how the stock market is trending instead of your speed (ok, that we made up. Well, we think.) versus something cool AND useful (and safe)?

Here’s a sampling of what made their list.  See how it compares with yours:

Number One for Road & Track is the back-up camera.  And even if that one isn’t high on your list, we’re all going to be using them eventually – because every passenger car sold in the U.S. now, is required to have one.  (And yes, that “thanks” you hear, is from your rear bumper.)

Remember cruise control?  Switch that on for a long highway drive, and you can give your right leg a break (plus the steady speed is excellent for fuel efficiency).  The addition of radar puts this on the R&T list.  Now cruise control can adjust to the car in front of you, and keep you at a set distance behind.  You’re still steering though, so all eyes on the road.

Next up, let’s take a couple of under-the-hood items:

Limited-slip differential.  Yes, we had to look that up also.  Say you hit a patch of ice, and one front wheel starts slipping.   The differential sends more power to the other front wheel that still has a grip. It’s been around since the 1930s, but what lands it on this list is the addition of electronics – which make that power shift faster and more precise.

If you’ve ever felt the road a little too much, this one is for you:  magnetic adaptive suspension. These shock absorbers use a liquid polymer (yes, we like that) – and little zaps of electricity to make that polymer thicker or thinner, to react and cushion any bump in the road – in a few milliseconds.  So by the time you know you’ve hit that pothole, your suspension has got your back.  Literally.

Finally, R&T did call out a couple of features that aren’t cool at all – in fact, they’re warm:  the heated steering wheel and the heated seat.  Readers in our northern states, you don’t need us to tell you why that matters.  (Though if you’re south of the Mason-Dixon line, that heated seat is also ventilated – cool, when your car’s been sitting parked in the summer sun.)

Not all of these are on every car, of course – but you can see all thirteen of Road & Track’s top tech for cars, and what cars have them, plus weigh in with your own favorites:  Which New Car Tech Features Are Actually Good?

*And just in case you’re wondering, like we did, WHY is it called a “dashboard”, here’s the answer:  Back in the days before the “horseless carriage” (aka, the car), the dashboard was a piece of wood or leather, put in front of you and behind the horse(s), to keep mud being “dashed” up onto your lap.  Then, in the earliest cars, it would have protected you from whatever the front wheels kicked up (those cars were more open).  Later, it separated you from the heat of the engine – and finally, it just turned out to be a good place to put car instrumentation (once that was invented) – the speedometer, gas gauge, and such.  But while its purpose changed over the years, the name never did.

“Star Truck”?

Imagine for a moment that James T. Kirk did not go to Starfleet Academy, and went instead – to truck driving school.

Well, his ride has arrived…

In fact, Shell, which is helping develop this new truck, calls the project the “Starship Initiative.”

The goal however, is not to explore new worlds, but to use energy more efficiently in the world we’ve got. This new truck incorporates new design ideas, but it will run on diesel and be a truck that could haul cargo on the roads of today, in the lifetime of those of us around today.

Shell’s collaborator on this project is Bob Sliwa and his AirFlow Truck Company – and you’ll find their fuel-saving innovations inside and outside this truck. The aerodynamic front is unmistakable. But in addition, the truck sides and back sweep down almost to the ground, which cuts wind resistance. The cab – built from carbon fiber, strong but much lighter than today’s truck cabs. An energy-efficient six-cylinder diesel engine. A futuristic-looking convex windshield. Low-rolling resistance tires that cut friction with the road. Oils and lubricants from the Shell labs.

This “laboratory on wheels” made a coast-to-coast run recently, to road test the truck design. The results? Compared to the current industry average for big rigs, the amount of cargo the “Starship” could move per gallon of diesel was almost 250 percent higher. That’s a massive increase in fuel efficiency.

So keep an eye out on the highway for this Starship (not that you’d miss it). And get ready for, “These are the voyages of – my 18-wheeler, good buddy!”

Making Flip-Flops, and Making a Difference

What can you make out of polyurethane?

Bowling balls and soccer balls, surf boards and roller coasters, insulation and bandages and flip-flops.  The list of “things” you can make from polyurethane is quite long.

At a New Rochelle (just outside of New York City) company named Tidal, they make flip-flops from polyurethane – but they make something else too – they make a difference in the lives of the Army and Marine Corps vets who work there. More than 80 percent of Tidal’s factory workers are veterans.

Oh, Tidal has the full-on 21st century at work (we’ll show you what the factory floor looks like in a moment):  like pouring liquid polyurethane into molds (instead of cutting the flip-flops out) – digital UV printers for the art on your footwear – and yeah, you can find them on Instagram.

But there are some serious old-school values at work there too:  all the materials come from U.S. suppliers – if you don’t like the flip-flops, they take ‘em back, and you get your money back, period – and, their commitment to hiring ex-servicemen and women.

So let’s turn over the mic to Pat and Siul, Adam and Joe – veterans and Tidal employees, who will show you what they do – the molding, the printing, the strapping, the inspecting – and they’ll tell you a bit about who they are too.  We’ll see you back here in 90 seconds.

Our part in this story is a modest one.  But to make polyurethane, you start with petrochemical building blocks, such as propylene and benzene – so what we make, helps make possible what Tidal makes – the flip-flops, and the difference.

And with summer in the air already, and on the calendar soon, if you’re thinking about something new for your feet this season, you might take a look – and you can do that here:  Tidal New York.

Road Trip! And (Weird) side Attractions

Would you take a break on your road trip for an ice cream shop shaped like a giant owl, called “Hoot Hoot I Scream”?

Yes, of course you would!  Who wouldn’t?  That’s part of the point of a road trip – seeing something, eating something, doing something you only find – out on the road.

And yes, you could have stopped at “Hoot Hoot I Scream.”  It WAS a real place.  And also yes, we’ll show you what it looked like, in a moment.

But first, a few more stops along the road – in this case, the road through California, where a lot of the state was built around the car – so there were plenty of businesses that built themselves to catch your eye from the car.

Like the Big Donut Drive-in (You didn’t drive through the donut though – that was on the roof.  And it was a BIG donut.  32 feet worth.).

Or Tail o’ the Pup (though we admit, this one looks as much like a SpaceX turned on its side, as it does a hot dog in a bun).

And who would not be tempted by the giant coffee pot on the roof of – the “Wilshire Coffee Pot”, naturally (featuring Ben-Hur drip coffee – the perfect drink for a trip in heavy traffic)?  Or the “Bull Stops Here Barbecue”, featuring a GIANT cow?  Or, if only because “could something REALLY be that weird” (and yes, it could), the “Toed Inn” – a drive-in with a walk-up counter that was built into a giant, yes, a toad.

You can see ‘em all here, thanks to the folks at  Atlas Obscura.  And if that whets your appetite, so to speak, for more road trip treats – the source for all these is the book, California Crazy.

And while these roadside attractions are all in California, most states with a highway and road trippers had their own versions, at least at one time (but if you’ve seen the world’s largest teapot, off Highway 30 in West Virginia, you knew that already).

Some say it all began, by the way, with Lucy, a six-story wooden elephant just off the beach in Margate, New Jersey (that’s the southern part of the Jersey Shore, for you fans of the TV show – and on the same island as Atlantic City).  And if this summer finds you in South Jersey – drop by for Lucy’s 137th birthday party.

And if you’ve got a favorite roadside attraction, wherever the road has taken you – let us know, we’d like to hear about it.