PETROCHEMICALS: The Building Blocks of Modern Life

What can you make from crude oil or natural gas? Well, maybe it’d be easier to list what you can’t make – because the list of what starts with petrochemicals (the chemicals produced from oil, and natural gas too) is thousands and thousands of items long. And what’s on that list, are the things of everyday life (and some pretty “wow” futuristic items too).

In the everyday category – pick a room in your house, and there almost certainly is something made from petrochemicals:

  • KITCHEN: Your refrigerator. The plastic wrap around the food in your refrigerator. The plastic containers in your refrigerator. The counter-tops (if they’re new).
  • BATHROOM: Your shampoo bottles – bandages – aspirin – comb.
  • ALL AROUND THE HOUSE: Carpets – linoleum – pillows – mattresses – DVDs and flat-screen TVs – tape (the sticky kind) – cellphones – suitcases – plumbing – insulation. 
  • OH, AND THE GARAGE: Besides the car (dashboard, seats and even in some cases the body) – basketballs – footballs – fishing lures – bike tires – motorcycle helmet – tents – sleeping bags – golf balls.

Petrochemicals are also used to make solar panels (if you’ve got them), and the high-tech thermostat that controls that heat – petrochemicals are part of that too.  Same with your energy-saving LED lights – producing them starts with petrochemicals.

And on the “wow” list?  How about glue that closes wounds instead of stitches?  A (3D) printed prosthetic hand?  Polymer-based armor that’s tougher than today’s bulletproof vests?  Plastic that’s strong enough to replace metal?  Foam that replaces soil for rooftop farms

And since we’re talking futuristic, yeah, the rocket fuel that’s going to propel the space shuttle into outer space on that first expedition to Mars.

Fuel Tips: Get More Out of Your Car

Did you know that you can improve your fuel economy just by adopting good driving habits? Below are our top 12 gas saving tips to help you save at the pump!

  • Change your air filter! Nearly a quarter of cars on the road need a new air filter. A clean air filter can improve gas mileage by as much as 10%.
  • Get a Tune Up! Make sure you properly maintain your car and get regular tune ups. A properly maintained engine can improve gas mileage by up to 4%.
  • Pump Up Those Tires! More than one in four vehicles on the road are driving on under-inflated tires. The average under-inflation (7.5 pounds!) causes a 2.8% drop in fuel efficiency.
  • Follow the speed limit. Really. For every 5 mph you reduce your highway speed, you can reduce fuel consumption by 7%.
  • Get Aligned! Getting an alignment not only reduces wear on your tires, but gives your engine a break. Align your tires and save up to 10% .
  • Use That Cruise! Using cruise control on the highway helps you maintain a constant speed and, in most cases, will save gas.
  • Combine short trips! Warm engines run more efficiently than cold ones. Combining short errands into one trip is an efficient way to save on gas – and on your valuable time.

  • Tighten That Gas Cap! Did you know that nearly 17% of cars on the road have a broken or missing gas cap? A loose gas cap allows fumes from your tank to escape more easily and can hurt fuel economy.
  • Take that Junk Out of Your Trunk! Lighten your load by removing excess baggage from your car. Extra weight in the car creates a drag on the engine and consumes extra gas. For every 100 pounds carried, your vehicle loses 1 to 2% fuel efficiency. 

  • Don’t Idle! Idling wastes gas. If you’re stopped for more than 30 seconds, turn off the engine to save on gas.
  • Close Your Windows When Driving at High Speeds! Sometimes you just want to feel that breeze in your hair but it may not be the most fuel efficient way to travel. Closing your windows will keep your car more aerodynamic at high speeds and can save up to 10% in fuel efficiency. 
  • Drive More Smoothly and Don’t Ride Your Brakes! It can be tempting to put the pedal to the metal when the light turns green, but doing that can empty your gas tank (and wallet) quicker than you think. Studies have shown that accelerating moderately and stopping gradually may cut gas consumption by as much as 35%.

Looking for Nemo? Try his underwater farm.

“Absurd, psychotic, ridiculous.”

That was his son’s reaction, when Sergio Gamberini first talked about farming under the ocean.

There are indoor farms, yes – vertical farms on racks inside warehouses.  There are automated farms – with self-driving tractors on the ground and drones in the air.  There are even farms (well, gardens) in outer space – on the International Space Station.

But an underwater farm?  That had to be impossible?

And the crop that Sergio Gamberini wanted to grow underwater wasn’t fish, or even seaweed.  It was basil.  The same basil you might grow in a pot.  The same basil that goes into pesto or onto a pizza.

That was, ridiculous.

But today, basil DOES grow underwater, in “Nemo’s Garden” (Gamberini’s name for the project), off the Italian coast near Genoa.  Beans and strawberries and lettuce grow there too.  Still no seaweed though.

What made the ridiculous into reality, the impossible into possible, the psychotic into the possible – was something very simple.  A plastic balloon.

(Photo from Nemo’s Garden)

Six of those “balloons” make up Nemo’s Garden (they call them “pods”) – filled with air, floating 15 to 36 feet below the surface, stretched over a frame anchored to the ocean floor.

The acrylic plastic lets sunlight through – and on the inside of the plastic, water condenses out and is used to irrigate the plants (the bottom is open to the sea, but the air pressure inside keeps the seawater down).  The water temperature at that depth is just right for growing plants, like basil.  The plants themselves grow hydroponically – so no dirt – just a “nutrient-rich solution” flowing through tubes inside the pod.  (Plus, underwater?  No bugs.)

And those sheets of acrylic plastic covering the pods, are transparent enough to let through the maximum amount of light while being strong enough to stand up to salt water and ocean currents.

Those are the facts about how it all works. But just watching it work: these balloons/pods, in the filtered light underwater, swaying just a bit back and forth, looks like something from another world.

You can watch the story of how that “other world” came to be below.

 

Navy SEALs’ new wetsuit boosts cold water survival

On November 2, 1931, DuPont introduced to the world – Duprene!

Ok, unless you’re a chemist, that sentence will have you scratching your head: “WHAT, is Duprene, and what’s the big deal about it?”

But ask a surfer, a diver, a Navy SEAL – and THEY will have a ready answer.  Because Duprene changed its name to neoprene, and neoprene is the stuff wetsuits have been made of since the 1950s.

No, not that.

More like this.

Now seventy years is a good run for most things, and you might expect that neoprene would now gracefully fade from the scene, to be replaced by something far more epic.  So, you will be stoked to know that there is new life for neoprene.

Not from chemists this time, but from engineers.  Engineers at MIT, working on the Navy’s behalf, have come up with a way to make neoprene “last” longer.

The Navy wanted a wetsuit that would keep a user (like a SEAL), alive longer in cold water, without being so thick or stiff that the person in the water couldn’t do anything but bob up and down.

What the MIT engineers came up with, was blubber.  Not REAL blubber, but the idea of blubber.  They took a neoprene wetsuit – which is a sort of synthetic rubber foam, filled with little air pockets – and replaced the air in those pockets, with an inert gas (like xenon or krypton).  As science goes, the process is pretty simple:  grab a standard wetsuit off the shelf, put it in a sealed, pressurized container with the gas, and wait about twenty-four hours.

The result?  The time a person could survive in cold water just about tripled, from less than one hour – to as much as three hours.

For a Navy SEAL or a rescue diver, that can be a life-saving difference.  But even for a barney, that can make for a bitchin’ day, no matter how gnarly the waves are.

Where’d that come from?

 By the way, how DuPont got to Duprene in the first place – involves a little history.  This was the time between world wars, and the U.S., like other industrial countries, was looking for ways to replace rubber.  Since rubber trees didn’t grow in the U.S., there was the risk that in wartime, we could be cut off from natural sources of rubber – which, among other things, would mean no tires for jeeps, trucks or planes.

 Duprene/neoprene was cooked up (literally) in that search for synthetic rubber.  Chemically, it started with butylene, which is one of the basic petrochemicals from which so much else is made.  And as a petrochemical, the source of butylene, is crude oil and natural gas.

 In the end, Duprene/neoprene did not replace rubber (other synthetics were developed from butylene to that end), but it turned out to have its own uses, like the wetsuit.

Fuels and our Furry Friends, a life-saving combination

Photo from Muttville Senior Dog Rescue

Sometimes the stories are high flying…

“A private plane crowded with kennels touched down at Oakland International Airport Sunday night.  The flight was filled with 69 dogs and cats rescued from the rising floodwaters in Texas.

“…animal rescue groups packed the plane with much-needed medications, collars, leashes and blankets and flew to Austin Sunday morning.  They returned with a plane filled to the brim with 15 cats and 54 dogs 8 p.m. Sunday night.

“Many of the dogs were evacuated from a shelter in Beaumont, Texas that was affected by flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. … Before Sunday’s rescue mission, the animals were at risk of being euthanized.”

Sometimes the story is quite down-to-earth…

“Best Friends Animal Society set up an impromptu shelter at the NRG Arena in Houston…where lost pets from Hurricane Harvey were kept safe in hopes their families would find them and take them home.

Luna (the dog) was one of the hundreds of pets at the shelter waiting for her family. … Luna’s history hasn’t been very easy … She was initially an abandoned dog roaming the streets of Laredo, Texas.  She was brought to Houston and had been passed around many, many times.”

And when Luna finally did find a loving home, along came Hurricane Harvey.  But this time, the story had a different ending, thanks to Best Friends, Doobert.com and Laura and Jeff’s 100-mile road trip.

“On Saturday, September 30, Laura and Jeff drove to the NRG Arena to pick up Luna and start her journey home.  Luna enjoyed the drive even though they were stuck behind a 10-car pileup on the way to College Station … Luna had a warm welcome home with endless hugs and love.  She is now safe at home with her family.”

Sometimes, the work is done one person, one dog, one propeller at a time:

(Photo from Flying Fur Animal Rescue)

Over the last two years, Flying Fur Animal Rescue has saved more than 900 animals, up and down the East Coast:

“Through a network of animal rescue organizations and ground transport, we help to move animals from kill shelters to areas where they will be adopted, and given a second chance at life.  Many times air transport is the safest and most efficient way to transport these animals.  Usually we can help move animals from shelter to rescue within the same day.

“Every day, healthy, loving animals throughout this country are condemned to euthanization, simply because they cannot get to other areas where they would otherwise be adopted – we help to change those odds.”

That’s the big picture.  This is Flying Fur’s story of Peter.

“Peter was a senior, found during the search of an abandoned building by NYC Police, tied up and left to die alone.

“…Imagine Pet Rescue stepped in and pulled Peter from the shelter. … Through a network of volunteers, we were alerted to Peter’s urgency” … he was driven from New York, to an airport in New Jersey, and flown …”to his new forever mom, Amber, just outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.”

And sometimes, the work of saving animals takes a 737 – and a village, of people, and of pets:

(Photo by Shelley Castle Photography, from Southwestaircommunity.com)

More than 60 cats and dogs, in fact, who flew on that 737, from Puerto Rico, to Baltimore.  Pets who’d been without a home since Hurricane Maria, or pets whose families were not able to care for them in the aftermath of the storm.

That’s when Lucky Dog Animal Rescue stepped in.  Working with PR Animals in Puerto Rico, and Southwest Airlines – the planning took months, and it took dozens of volunteers (including the crew of the plane.  The use of the plane was a donation from Southwest.), on both ends to carry out that plan.  But when it was done, that plane brought in 14,000 pounds of supplies in to Puerto Rico, and brought out all those cats and dogs to loving, safe homes.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about their fellow passengers, those cats and dogs WERE the passengers.  They didn’t fly down in the cargo hold.  They (and their travel crates) were strapped into seats in the main cabin.  Well, except for one dog.  (Co-pilot, we’re thinking.)

(Photo by Shelley Castle Photography, from luckydoganimalrescue.org)

Big and small, every day or extraordinary event, all of these rescues are made possible by people who love animals, and by the petroleum which fuels their rescue flights and drives.  The workings of an internal combustion engine might be as mysterious to a cat or a dog as they are to many humans – but the life-saving work of a petroleum-fueled engine – there’s no mystery at all about that.

 The ASPCA estimates that there are 78 million dogs and almost 86 million cats in the U.S., not to mention a wide variety of other animal pets.  Many of them are pets in loving homes, but as Peter’s story reminds us, not all.  And in times of disaster, even a loving home can be broken up and put at risk.

But as long as there are men and women willing to rescue animals in danger, they’ll be able to count on the fuels produced from petroleum to get them where they are needed, when they are needed – and back again.

 

Is your truck smarter than you?

If your new truck is a Chevy, the answer might be yes.  At least speaking on behalf of its engine.

That’d be the eight-cylinder engine that you can find in the 2019 Chevy Silverado.

Because this engine can give you 355 horsepower firing on all eight cylinders, and that same engine can also run on just one cylinder.

That’s right, it can run on one cylinder.  Or two.  Or six.  In fact, there are 17 different possible configurations.

Now here’s the “smarter” part:  the engine’s brain crunches the numbers to figure out which of those 17 set-ups is right for the driving you are doing in a given moment, and it can figure that out 80 times a second.

And that’s smart with a purpose.  If your engine can match the power it’s producing, to just the power you need – that means you are using just the fuel you need.  That saves you money, and saves us all a valuable resource.

So, you’re driving uphill, pulling a trailer?  Eight cylinders.  Cruising at a steady speed on a flat stretch of highway – maybe six cylinders does the trick.  Pulling into your driveway at home?  One cylinder might do fine for that.  Chevy figures that more than half the time, your engine will be running on fewer than all eight cylinders.

But just ask your engine – it’ll know.  Ok, don’t really.  It isn’t like Alexa or Siri, and anyhow, if it’s figuring out what to do 80 times a second, your engine probably doesn’t really have time to chat.

Chevy calls this Dynamic Fuel Management, and this is how their engineers describe it:

“DFM is powered by a sophisticated controller that continuously monitors every movement of the accelerator pedal and runs a complex sequence of calculations to determine how many cylinders are required to meet the driver’s requested torque … An electromechanical system deactivates and reactivates all 16 of the engine’s hydraulic valve lifters, controlling valve actuation.”

So maybe it is true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.  But an old engine?  A few centuries on, the internal combustion engine keeps getting more mileage, and more power out of every gallon of gasoline you put into it.  We call that smart.

By the way, if you want to see what a really smart engine looks like, it looks like this (well, actually it IS this):

And if you want to read more about it, Chevrolet’s got that (or you can check your favorite automotive magazine/website).

How Much Propane Do You Need To Deep Fry Eight Turkeys? (and more propane-ology)

If you’ve got a grill parked in the backyard, or you’re the kind of camper who prefers a cooked dinner over beef jerky – you probably know about propane already (but keep an eye out later in this story, when we answer the question:  “How much propane do you need to deep fry eight turkeys?”  Coming below.).

That’s because propane is what fires up a lot of our grills and camp stoves.  But propane does much more than cook (in fact, about 48 million households in the U.S. have something that runs on propane).

Brief detour, especially if you’re not already a member of Propane Nation:  What IS propane?

The simple answer is, propane is a fuel made from natural gas or petroleum (either one works).  Propane is a gas in its natural state, but we usually see it as a liquid, in a tank or a canister, because it’s easier to store (a little liquified propane equals a lot of propane gas fuel).

So what CAN you do with propane?  Let’s take a look.

Yes, you can fire up a backyard grill.  That’ll cook all sorts of things – from hot dogs and steaks burgers, to grilling corn or eggplant or kebobs.  And if deep-frying eight turkeys is on your mind, our expert suggests three 5-gallon propane tanks (two might do it, but just in case.  And you can always use that third tank next time.).  He walks you through it here:  “Let’s deep fry a turkey.”

You can eat a home (well, camp)-cooked meal, out in the woods.  The Coleman stove is a long-time classic.  Hook that up to your propane canister and you’ve got everything from coffee in the morning to, well, just about anything for dinner (Red wine-marinated hanger steaks with flatbreads.  Yes, you could.)

Back home from that camping trip?  So maybe you didn’t do that much cooking out in the wilderness and now, you are hungry.  Maybe even hangry.  If home is in a city, chances are, there’s something good cooking in a food truck near you.  And food trucks do their cooking on – propane stoves.  A pork slider on a Hawaiian roll?  Some fried plantains and pupusas?  Barbeque?  A sisig burrito?  Thanks, propane.

But propane isn’t just about the kitchen.  If there’s a pool (along with that grill) in your backyard, a propane heater can keep that pool just the temperature you’d like.  Propane also powers portable patio heaters if you’re sitting out at night.   And there are propane fire pits too, if you like that look.

And speaking of heat, come wintertime, you might live in one of the 10  million or so households that uses propane to heat the inside of the house.  Demographically speaking, that’s more likely to be true if you live away from a city or in a mobile home – though propane heat is a feature of many new homes now in the Northeast.  A propane generator can be handy too if your power goes out (you can be back in the light, or online in as little as 10 seconds).

You might also be using propane at work.  About 40 percent of American farmers use it for something – and “something” runs the gamut from powering irrigation engines, operating forklifts, running heaters to dry grains like corn and wheat, keeping the barn or the greenhouse warm – along with the same uses we non-farmers have for propane, like cooking.  All told, American agriculture is using more than a billion gallons of propane every year.

But the single-biggest use of propane, about 80 percent, is at work is for industrial uses.  If you’ve ever seen somebody with a visor and a blowtorch, for instance – metal cutting or soldering, that blue flame is propane on the job.  Propane is also the fuel of choice for vulcanizing (which is the fancy name for the heating process that turns the ingredients of a tire, into a tire).

Propane even fixes potholes.  Sort of.  Or more precisely, propane is used to heat up the asphalt that’s used to fix potholes.  So keep an eye out for those highway maintenance workers when you’re driving, and if they are doing road repairs, you can give a tip ‘o the hat to propane as you pass.  In fact, you might even be driving on propane.  There are some 200,000 cars, trucks and vans out on the road, using propane as fuel.  (The most common uses are for police cars, school buses and shuttle vans).

There are even propane-fueled mosquito traps.

Life on the Madden Cruiser

What’s the most famous bus in the NFL?

Some Steeler fans might disagree (see Jerome Bettis), but for most of us (even in Pittsburgh), the answer is:  John Madden’s bus.

The pros agree too.  This year, the (original) Madden bus went into the NFL Hall of Fame.

Technically, it was called the “Madden Cruiser”, and on the outside, it looked like a converted Greyhound bus, which is what it was.

But inside – well, a ride on the ‘Hound’ never looked like this.

      (Photo from Pro Football Hall of Fame)

We’ll get to that interior in a moment. But first, the story of how John Madden came to be on the bus.

“People used to say to me, ‘It must be great coaching and traveling and seeing all the things you do,’ … Well, I’d get on the airplane, and then I’d get off the airplane, get on a bus and go to the hotel. Then the stadium, then the airplane again. I thought I’d traveled all over, but I hadn’t seen anything. You’ve got to be on the ground to see things.”

That’s how he told it to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, when King rode the bus with Madden – Oakland, California to New York for a 1990 Giants-Cowboys game.

In the beginning, Madden did fly. But a recurring claustrophobia put an end to that. Then he rode the train. But the train schedules weren’t flexible enough for his schedule. And so in 1987, the Madden Cruiser hit the road for the first time – logging 55,000 miles that season.

Naturally, this was no ordinary bus. It came with a bedroom (queen-sized bed), full bathroom, kitchenette and – and a built-in vacuum cleaner! On the end, there were two color TVs, phone, intercom, CB radio, two laser-disc players, a stereo system and a videotape machine (remember, this was 1987).

But if Madden started riding the bus out of necessity, he came to love it, and the country it took him through.

“We had to stop in Beaver Crossing, Nebraska [pop. 480] once, to use the phone for the radio show* … Some guy comes across the street from a gas station and introduces himself. Roger Hannon. He was the mayor, and it was his gas station. The next thing I know, we’re in front of the city hall, and the people start coming out, and they want to see the bus. One woman brought me a rhubarb pie. I didn’t even know what rhubarb pie was, but it was great. The whole town came out.”

Madden developed an appetite for seeing the country – the mountains, the prairies, the big sky – and he had an appetite for all the small town cafes, the diners, the Grandpa’s Steakhouses and Chuy’s along the way. See the country he did too, over two decades and four different editions of the Madden Cruiser. When Madden hung up his broadcaster’s mic in 2009, the buses were racking up 80,000 miles a year.

(Photo from Bus Digest Magazine)

Over those years of course, the bus had changed a bit (by 2009, Madden didn’t have to stop at a gas station to use the phone anymore).  But what never changed was life on the road.

You can follow the road, wherever the road goes.  You can stop whenever you want.  You can see whatever there is to see.  As long as there’s a town, there’s food.  As long as there’s a gas station, there’s fuel.  And that’s as true for any of us, as it was for John Madden.

“If the claustrophobia thing didn’t happen, I wouldn’t know what this country is, or what these people are like.  I would have been like everybody else:  run, run, run.  Airport, airport, airport.  Hotel, hotel, hotel.  City, city, city.  I wouldn’t have found time to see things like I see them now.”

Madden also had one other inspiration for taking the bus.

Almost thirty years earlier, novelist John Steinbeck set out around the country in a camper – and those trips became his book, “Travels With Charley” (Charley the dog).  “Travels with Charley influenced me a lot … I always wanted to travel, because I’d never seen anything.  He was a great storyteller, John Steinbeck.  I read everything of his.”

Steinbeck’s book is a classic road story.  But, let’s save that story for another time.

By the way, it isn’t just the Madden Cruiser that’s in the Hall of Fame.  John Madden is there too.  No, not for Madden NFL.  Before the video game, before the broadcasting career – Madden was a Super Bowl-winning coach.  The Hall of Fame will catch you up on that part of his story here:  John Madden.

How’s your genie lamp? (Or what ARE those lights on my dashboard?)

Ok, we’re not going to go through all of them (and there are a lot. One guide lists 44 lights/warnings for new model cars.). But here are the ones that might be most important (and what to do if one of these lights, lights up on you):

Low tire pressure warning light:  This doesn’t mean you need to top off the air pressure with a quick squirt from the air hose at the gas station.  This means there’s a hole and a leak in a tire – so you want to look at your tires ASAP.

This is particularly important if you have “run-flat” tires, because when you’re driving on those, you may not be able to tell you’ve got a flat.  Run-flats have stiff sidewalls that will you let you drive, for a time, on a tire without air.  But check your car’s manual for how fast and for how long you can drive safely (because too far and too fast means a blowout). (Note:  If your ride is older than 2008, it may not have this light.)

Low battery warning light:  Conveniently, this looks like a battery; well, a car battery.

This is your heads-up to change course and drive to your mechanic.  (And while you’re driving there, it’s a good idea to leave the stereo, the AC or the heater, whatever you can safely leave off, off – because they all draw electricity.)

The problem could be the battery itself, or the charging system (the alternator, and company).  But if you don’t get it checked straightaway, when you park and turn off the engine – that might be the last time you can start it without a call to AAA.

Brake warning light:  Take that one seriously, because without brake fluid, you’re without brakes, period.  Now, the brake light can mean a leak, it can just mean the car is low on brake fluid, or it can mean other problems with the brakes – so you want a knowledgeable eye to figure out what’s going on.Just in case though, one thing YOU can do is check your emergency brake.  If you’re driving with that on, you’ll get a light as well.

The genie lamp, aka the oil pressure light (see the little drip):  Like the brake warning, this can signal a leak, oil in this case.  Oil keeps the moving parts of your engine moving smoothly and cool-ly – so don’t fool around with this.  When you’ve stopped, and the engine is cool, you can check the oil yourself, and add some if needed (your car’s manual will tell you how). But if that isn’t the answer, then a trip to your mechanic probably is (the problem could be a leak, the oil pump, even something with the engine itself).

Temperature warning light:  Just like us, if your car is running a fever, it’s a sign something is wrong.  And like us, there are a lot of reasons your car might be overheating (among them, coolant leak, broken water pump, failed thermostat). Don’t, as in do not, drive the car when the temperature is all the way over in the red – that can result in serious (and expensive) engine damage. And do not, as in never, open the radiator to check the coolant level if the car is hot – that can result in serious burns.  Do get the car checked out though, as soon as it is cool enough to drive. (And one weird tip, if your car is just starting to overheat on a hot day, turn off the AC and turn ON your heater.  Weird?  Yes.  But what it does is blow some of that heat away from the engine, though.

And here’s your bonus light, the engine warning light:  You could spend all day on the internet, looking this up – and at the end of that day, you’d have almost as many explanations as you’d looked at pages. The short explanation is that usually, you can drive the car with the light on – but you shouldn’t drive it for weeks and weeks like that.  So yes, a trip to the mechanic – but not an urgent trip like the other lights.  (Most often this light signals a problem with your car’s emissions system, so we will breathe easier along with you, if you get this checked out and cleared up.)

“Alexa…I have a headache”

Medicines delivered by drone?  It could happen.

Now before you think this is just the latest example of the online world run amok, let’s look at who this might REALLY make a difference to.

If you live in a city, or near a city, there probably are plenty of those chain pharmacies, and maybe even a local drugstore or two.  So in which case, the prescription drone might be the equivalent of getting a pizza delivered from the place around the corner.

But that isn’t all of us.  For starters, about one in ten Americans live in areas where there is no “drugstore around the corner.”  In fact, for all the drugstores in the U.S. (and there are a lot), they are not evenly spread out – some parts of the country have THREE times more drugstores per capita (like the Northeast, Southeast and Plains states) compared to others (like the Pacific West, Southwest and Great Lakes region).  Factor in travel time, work schedules and the hours at your “local” drugstore – and picking up medicines is not always so easy.

And no matter where you live, if you have trouble getting around, or you can’t drive anymore – a pharmacy that’s not far away on the map, can be a challenge to reach in real life.  Some drugstores do deliver – but it turns out that the areas with the highest number of people who DO have a medical condition that makes getting around difficult, those are the same areas with the fewest number of pharmacies that deliver.

For someone who can’t get to the doctor easily, there are phone consultations, and even FaceTime or Skype, so you can see each other while you talk.  But you can’t send medicine, or a home test kit through the internet.

So could drones make a difference, delivering prescriptions?   A group at Texas A&M University has started the work of answering that question – and the early results (mathematical modeling to see how and if this could be done) seem promising.

And one day, that knock on the door might be your blood pressure or asthma or cholesterol medication.

The Football Helmet of the Future

Well, actually, we don’t know what the football helmet of the future is.  Yet.  But as the 2018 football season gets started, we do have some clues about the next generation of football helmets.

Before the start of the season, the NFL announced winners of its fourth “HeadHealthTECH Challenge” – an ongoing series of grants to universities and companies “designed to stimulate research and innovation in protective equipment” for players – in particular, better helmets.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the first change in football helmets.  In fact, in the early days of the game, there weren’t any helmets at all.  Then, after a brief moment of glory (in the late 1800s) for the “head harness”, the first leather helmet arrived.

Durable, but not a lot of protection.

Even so, leather helmets were the ONLY helmets until the Second World War.  And if you know your football history, you’ll know some of the greatest players ever – Jim Thorpe and the Galloping Ghost (Red Grange), Sid Luckman and (Slingin’) Sammy Baugh – wore the leather.

The next leap was the plastic helmet.  And just about everything since has been tinkering with that:  the addition of padding inside, and then more padding – first the single bar facemask, and then gradually more and more crossbars – newer types of padding – newer types of plastic – radio receivers (for the quarterback to get signals from the sidelines) – visors.

And THOSE helmets, in their various versions, take us from Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown, to Tom Brady and Antonio Brown.

But today, with a much higher level of concern about concussions, and long-term brain injuries – a new generation of helmets is coming.  From the outside, the new helmets might look familiar to Johnny U, but inside, new materials (built from petrochemical-derived materials) and very high tech will make these helmets totally 21st century.

For example, there’s Corsair Innovations’ FEAM (Fiber Energy Absorbing Material, if you’re wondering) – a helmet insert that substantially reduces the impact of getting hit, especially from twisting motions (baseball umpires are already using this).

And Yobel Technologies, a start-up based on research done at Mississippi State, which is testing out a new, lightweight, impact-absorbing faceguard.

Those two projects are winners of this year’s HeadHealthTECH Challenge (which has given out more than $1.3 million in grants so far).  Previous winners include:

Windpact, for an inside-the-helmet tech that is like “airbags” for your brain.

VyaTek for its Zorbz™  – which , like it sounds, “absorbs” up to 50 percent of the force of a hit (and which you can swap out for a new Zorbz™  afterward).

2nd Skull®, which is a (mostly) foam insert that you wear on your first skull – with a helmet, for football;  without a helmet, for sports like rugby.

And that’s just some of what’s making its way from the lab to the field.

So what will the helmet of the future look like?

Well, no.  Probably not like that.  And not like Tony Stark’s headgear either.

But whatever they look like, the next generation of helmets is coming.  And that new gear will make the game safer for NFL players, college players and even the youngest Galloping Ghosts-to-be.  Which is also good news for fans of football, and parents of football players.

Reinventing the wheel

So when the people at DARPA say they’ve got a better wheel, we’re inclined to give them a listen.  After all, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, doesn’t just have the Internet on its resume.  The technology behind GPS, hyperlinks, Siri, Google Maps and Windows – they had the first versions of all that too.

And actually, it looks like they’ve come up with Wheel 2.0 now too (working with the Robotic Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University).

It’s a round wheel, like the wheels we’ve known for centuries.  And it’s a triangular tread or track – like what you’d find on a tank.

Driving your Humvee down a highway – wheel mode.  Going off-road over rough terrain – switch to track.  Making that transformation is remarkable enough.  Even more – this happens on the fly, while you are driving.  (Take that, 4-wheel drive.)

Yeah.  That’s it.

And that’s not all DARPA is up to, when it comes to tinkering with a soldier’s ride.  Also getting a try out  – two versions of a windowless vehicle, using video and LIDAR outside; 3-D goggles, multiple screens and software inside – to allow driving without “seeing’ (eliminating vulnerable windows) – and even a version that can calculate the best route in a given situation, and drive itself off-road if necessary.  And there’s hydraulics too:  a suspension system, that lets a vehicle stay level, even driving across a steep slope (by jacking up the body of the vehicle on the downhill side).

You can see a little of all that, in this DARPA video.

Now in the end, some of these innovations may never get off the test track.  Some of them may go no farther than the battleground (though if they keep our servicemen and women safer, that’s certainly reason enough).  So we may never see these in the car of the future that we are driving.  But you never know where DARPA’s work turn up.  Just ask Siri.

(And do we need to say it?  Well, just in case:  these Army vehicles, whether they run on wheels or treads – or both! – like most of the cars and trucks the rest of us drive – what keeps them moving are gasoline and diesel, the fuels we make from petroleum.)

Hailey’s Hand: Girl with 3D Printed Hand Throws First Pitch at Every Major League Baseball Stadium

Photo Credit: UNLV Photo Services

Angels in the outfield? Not quite. On September 16 at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, all eyes were on the infield – the pitcher’s mound, to be exact.

There, 8-year-old Hailey Dawson threw her final first pitch of the Major League Baseball season and completed her goal to throw the first pitch at all 30 MLB ballparks.

A personal victory, indeed, but it’s also one with a global impact. Hailey has been artfully pitching with a 3D-printed hand — made with plastics made possible by petrochemicals. Born without a right pectoral muscle, which also affects the growth of her right hand, Hailey has Poland Syndrome. She has been successfully using MLB pitching mounds across the U.S. and Canada as a platform to raise awareness about the rare birth defect.

Even more, Hailey has been giving wings to a game-changing 3D printed technology that is making prosthetics more affordable to more people worldwide.

 

 

Her “Journey to 30” began March 31 at Petco Park in San Diego, but really this story began several years ago, when Hailey’s mom, Yong Dawson, started researching prosthetics for her daughter. She wanted Hailey to be able to hold a bike’s handlebar more easily, and Hailey wanted to play baseball. Traditional prosthetics, however, cost $20,000 or more, an amount far from feasible for kids who tend outgrow the device.

Yong turned to another groundbreaking technology: the internet. There, she discovered a South African organization called Robohand, which uses 3D printing technology, along with wires, nuts, bolts and hinges, to create more affordable prosthetic hands. Robohand shares its models online so that anyone in the world can create their own prosthetics. It asks only that the models aren’t sold for a profit.

Yong, of Henderson, Nev., near Las Vegas, then emailed the University of Nevada Las Vegas’s (UNLV) Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering asking for assistance.

The school’s faculty leaped at the chance to help, with Brendan O’Toole, chair of the mechanical engineering department, and Mohamed Trabia, associate dean for research, graduate studies, and computing taking on the project alongside UNLV students, according to the university.

While O’Toole had previously worked with foot and ankle prosthetics, they didn’t involve 3-D printing.

“We liked the idea of a community-based design where we’re using our research and resources to help someone,” O’Toole said in a university report.

Interestingly, none of the roughly 100 Robohand concepts were a perfect fit for Hailey, so the team started from scratch and created a customized hand, “blending design ideas and materials found around the world through internet research,” the university said.

Using a Stratasys Fortus 250MC 3-D printer, the team benefited from precision printing of parts.

As UNLV’s staff described it: “In the machine, a yarn-like spool of plastic filament connects to a print head, which sprays layers of plastic just 0.007-inches thick until eventually smooth, very real-looking hand shapes form. The team chose ABS* plastic for all-weather use.”

After much refining, workable prosthetics were created for Hailey. According to an article by UNLV last year about Maria Gerardi, the UNLV graduate student credited with that refinement, each Robohand takes about a week to make – a relatively gracious timeline for a rapidly growing girl. And the cost is far lower than traditional prosthetics: “Each hand costs about $200 in supplies,” the school reports.

The process “requires a mix of biology and kinesiology know-how (to understand how the human body and muscles involved in various grasping motions work), along with math (to calculate part dimensions and build 3-D models) and engineering (to design components that are small yet thick enough to not break),” according to UNLV’s engineering department.

It’s an innovation that can be shared – and then applied – to people in need worldwide.

And it helped hurl Hailey into the Major Leagues.

Before this season, Hailey had thrown pitches at the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles and also in the fourth game of the 2017 World Series. Her story so inspired, she was invited to fulfill a dream to pitch at all 30 MLB stadiums. For each game, Hailey used a different hand to pitch with the respective team’s logo.

The large MLB stage has had a significant impact, inspiring not only baseball greats like Derek Jeter, but also helping to push the envelope on inspiring technology. Stratasys, a 3D-printing company that gave printing resources to UNLV, told the news publication SportTechie that Hailey’s Hand is “motivating advances in biomedical engineering and 3D printing around the U.S.”

Also, her story has inspired others. According to UNLV, a local Las Vegas family who heard about Hailey’s Hand in the news contacted the college, prompting UNLV engineering students to work with their daughter as well.

“There’s been so much publicity around it, and this is progressing at a rapid rate,” Jesse Roitenberg, an education segment sales leader at Stratasys, told SportTechie of the technology.

And so, indeed, there was one extra angel on the field at Angel Stadium on September 16.

Hailey’s Hand has done far more than just pitch in. It’s showed the world that anyone with the right combination of heart and desire along with the right technology and materials can do almost anything.

What does it take to make Hailey’s hand possible?  It takes one brave little girl, Hailey – to wear that hand, and to wear that hand in front of 30,000 people while throwing out a first pitch.  It takes a team of really smart engineers to make a working hand (and just think about how complicated your own hand is for a moment, to appreciate what a task that was).

And yet, that still isn’t enough.  Imagine you only had wood, or stone, or even metal to work with.  You might make a hand that LOOKS just like a hand – artists have done that for centuries.  But to make a hand that WORKS like a hand – for that, you need the right material – and the team at UNLV found that in ABS plastic.

But you can’t find ABS plastic in a forest, or a field, or a mine.  ABS plastic has to be made, and it’s made from petrochemicals – the chemicals that in turn, we make from petroleum and natural gas.  A material that’s strong and durable and lightweight.  A material that is affordable to produce and to shape (thanks to the 3D printing), which is especially important for a kid’s prosthetic, because as they grow, it needs to be replaced periodically.  (And, it IS a little odd to think about, in the case of a hand, but ABS plastic is also easily recycled and reused – so no waste.)

So if we didn’t have petroleum.  If we didn’t have natural gas.  We wouldn’t have many of the things, and much of the materials for making things, that we take for granted in our world today.  And one of those things we wouldn’t have, would be the miracle that we saw at ballparks around the country this summer.

*ABS stands for acrylonitrile butadiene styrene – which would be just what it’s made from:  the polymers styrene and acrylonitrile, which are strong and stable; along with synthetic polybutadiene rubber, used for toughness (styrene makes it look good too).  Put those three together in the lab, with a catalyst here, a catalyst there, and after a few chemical reactions, you’ve created ABS plastic.

Motorcycle Heaven in South Dakota

What is 80 years old, has one million wheels, and is really loud?

That’d be the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, in Sturgis (naturally), South Dakota – with somewhere around 500,000 motorcycles (and riders).

Not surprisingly, with half a million bikes, this wasn’t a one-day or even a weekend event.  This is TEN days of food and music and touring and…motorcycles.

The 2018 edition recently wrapped – but if you weren’t there, and now you’re feeling bad that you’ve missed the Beard & Mustache Contest or Military Appreciation Day, the Mayor’s Pub Crawl or the Tuesday Tattoo Contest (and all those bikes, and riders) – you can live vicariously a little here:  Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

There are a lot of different bikes, of course, under the motorcycle umbrella – from dirt bikes and touring bikes, to choppers and cruisers, to racing bikes and three-wheelers (ok, we’re kidding about that last one.  Not that they don’t exist, but we’re not counting them here.) – there are Harleys and Indians, Triumphs and Ducatis, Hondas and Suzukis and Kawasakis.  And with half a million bikes on site, you could probably find at least one of just about any motorcycle on the road today, somewhere in Sturgis.

And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention fuel-efficiency, so let’s mention that.  With all those different types of bikes, there’s a wide range of mpg, but if you were riding a Honda Rebel, for instance, you might be going 84 miles on every gallon of gas.  If your ride is a Triumph Thunderbird, your number could be 66 miles to the gallon.  And if you’ve got a Kawasaki Z125, sitting out front, that’s 100 miles to the gallon.  Smart and cool – that’s a pretty good combination.

We’d also be remiss if we didn’t give you one last taste of Sturgis 2018.  There was a LOT of live music – but we’ll just say it, one of those bands gave us the best motorcycle song ever.  And while it IS too late to hear Steppenwolf in Sturgis, we can still listen to (yeah, you know what’s coming):  Born To Be Wild.

Kevlar: From lab accident to life-saving miracle

“When I walked into the emergency room, the doctors and nurses were surprised because they were told an officer was shot in the head.  Imagine their surprise when the officer walked in because of the Kevlar® in his helmet.”

That’s Cincinnati police officer Daniel Kowalski, telling his story of one night on duty in December 2009.

“I was part of the SWAT team…making entry into an apartment for a homicide suspect.  The suspect fired two shots from a 9mm handgun…If I had not worn the helmet that was made with Kevlar®, I would have had two 9mm rounds in the right side of my head just above my right ear.”

“I should be six feet under and not writing this story.  My life was saved by Kevlar®… I am around today to watch my four daughters grow up and live life.”

And THIS story, is the story of how a lab accident led to that miracle.

Stephanie Kwolek was a chemist working for DuPont.  Her project in 1965, was to come up with “something” to make tougher tires.  A fiber strong enough to replace the steel wires that were used back then.

One day in the lab, like many other days in the lab, she was dissolving polymers (plastics, from petrochemicals) in a solvent, looking for that “something” — when something happened.  Instead of getting thicker and thicker, which was the usual outcome, this solution got thinner and more watery.

Kwolek knew she had something out of the ordinary, but she had to talk one of her colleagues into finding out just what – by putting that solution in a “spinneret” (which spins liquid polymers into fibers).

“We spun it, and it spun beautifully,” Kwolek said.  “It was very strong and very stiff, unlike anything we had ever made before.”

So tough, it was five times stronger than steel, pound for pound.  So tough, that DuPont had to get a new machine to test how strong it was.  And so tough, that since it’s been used to make body armor, it’s saved the lives of thousands of police officers.

Like the life of David Spicer.

“Police officer David Spicer was wearing a Kevlar® vest when he was shot by a drug suspect in 2001…Spicer took four .45-caliber slugs to the chest and arms at point-blank range and lived to tell about it.”

“The last one hit his nametag, bending it into a horseshoe shape, before burrowing into his vest, leaving a 10-inch tear.  ‘If that round would have entered my body, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now,’ the Dover police officer said.

“While recovering from his wounds, Spicer spoke briefly by phone with Ms. Kwolek and thanked her.  ‘She was a tremendous woman,’ he said.”

So what makes a miracle?  Kevlar® is made from aramid fiber, which is made from benzene and xylene, two key petrochemicals – and petrochemicals, are the chemicals produced by breaking apart or physically separating molecules found in petroleum or natural gas.  So while Kevlar® is not found in nature, it IS produced from what nature has given us.

What makes this particular polymer so tough, is that it’s made of long chains of molecules, that all run parallel to each other, and are tightly, very tightly, bonded together.  So when something hard and fast, like a bullet, hits Kevlar®, instead of breaking them apart, that force is spread across all those chains of molecules, soaking up the impact.  One chemist said it’s “like a net catching a ball.”

Like this.

“Investigator Kyle Russel was attacked during a routine traffic stop on a highway outside of Washington, DC, in September 2008.  As Investigator Russel approached the vehicle, the driver grabbed a .45 caliber pistol and shot Russel in the chest.  When he reported the shooting to police dispatch, he said, ‘I’m okay.  I think the vest got it.’”

Or like Officer Kowalski, sometimes the helmet “got it”.

THIS Kevlar® helmet, was worn by a member of the Orlando PD SWAT team, that went in after the shooter at the Pulse nightclub back in 2016.  49 people had already died inside, when the killer came out shooting at officers.  One of those officers was Michael Napolitano, and that was his helmet.

The shooter was killed.  And as the Orlando Police Chief reported, “Spoke with our officer, he is ok…not seriously injured.  Kevlar helmet saved his life.”

For anyone in harm’s way, Kevlar® really can be a life-saving miracle.  So maybe it’s no surprise, that when Kwolek died four years ago, the U.S. Army tweeted this:

“Rest in peace, Stephanie Kwolek. Thank you for inventing Kevlar and saving Soldiers’ lives.”  — U.S. Army (@USArmy) June 20, 2014

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.

Oil That Battery!

Tired of waiting – and waiting, and waiting for your phone or laptop battery to charge up?

Try adding a little oil.

Ok, at home – but researchers led by a team at Rice University have found that asphalt (made from petroleum) added to those lithium batteries – speeds up charging 10 times, even 20 times faster.

How cool is that?  This cool: “The capacity of these batteries is enormous, but what is equally remarkable is that we can bring them from zero charge to full charge in five minutes, rather than the typical two hours or more needed with other batteries.”  That’s Rice professor James Tour, speaking to Futurity.org.

Want even better?  A side benefit of the new combination battery, is that it prevents “dendrite formation.”  Significant, because, as Futurity puts it, dendrites “invade a battery’s electrolyte … and can cause the battery to fail, catch fire, or explode.  But the asphalt-derived carbon prevents any dendrite formation.”

Oh, and the asphalt/lithium battery – is easier to produce and costs less too.

So jump a short distance into the lithium-asphalt future – and if you drain the battery on your phone watching a movie or a game –  take a popcorn break, plug in your phone – and by the time you’re back, so’s your phone.  Thanks asphalt!

“Make mine seawater” (petrochemicals make desalinization practical)

“Water, water every where,

Nor any drop to drink”

(Which, as it turns out, is how the Rime of the Ancient Mariner actually puts it – though most of us have probably heard it as “and not a drop to drink”.)

In the poem, it’s the plight of sailors adrift in the ocean, literally on a sea of water, but suffering from thirst, because you can’t drink seawater.

But that was then (1797, to be exact).

Now we can (thanks to desalinization, taking the salt out of sea water).  And that is a good thing, because now it isn’t just sailors at sea who need water – it’s hundreds of millions of us on land too – people who live in places where traditional sources of water are falling short.

But desalinization traditionally uses massive amounts of energy (which also makes it massively expensive).  And that, is why even in cities by the sea, we don’t see much desalinization today.

Now comes a new technology, a membrane for filtering seawater that mimics the membrane of a living cell.  This new filter doesn’t require forcing the water through it (which is what takes all that energy and costs all that money) – but still does the work of producing clean, drinkable water – straight out of the sea.

But this new membrane has another plus as well.  It turns out that seawater has a lot of lithium in it, and this new process can filter out that lithium.  That’s good because this is the same lithium that goes into lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries – the batteries that run laptops when they’re not plugged.  Also cell phones, tablets, digital cameras, and cordless power tools (like sanders, drills, hedge trimmers).  And yes, electric car batteries too.  Which means, like clean drinking water, the demand for lithium is also putting pressure on the supply.

So you might say truly, this is a magic membrane, that might be the answer to two critical shortages at once.  And the starting point for this magic – is toluene.  Now, if you don’t know what that is, you’re not alone.  Toluene is a petrochemical, made from petroleum, working quietly in the background.  In this case, toluene is used in step one of a series of chemical reactions, which eventually gets us to a zeolitic imidazolate framework, which is the basis of the new membrane filter.

And that – could get us to a virtually inexhaustible source of fresh drinking water (and a lifetime supply of cellphone batteries).  Guess it’s a good thing oil and water don’t mix.

Why wind and power depends on petroleum and natural gas

What keeps a wind turbine turning?

Yes, it’s a trick question.

You need a good breeze, of course – but there’s something else that’s essential, something that you might not associate with wind power. And that something, would be oil or natural gas. Yep. Wind power depends on the hydrocarbon.

That’s because inside those turbines are gears, axles, a generator – all sorts of moving, turning parts – and moving parts need lubrication – and lubrication means oil. Which shouldn’t be surprising. Petroleum products are in all sorts of other products, including other sources of energy.

And those moving parts? The windmill blades have been getting longer and longer, which is good for the work of catching the wind – but the only way to make blades like that, is through carbon-reinforced resins made from petrochemicals.

Wind power in the U.S. produces about 5.5% percent of our electricity these days, so long as you’ve also got the oil to keep those turbines lubricated and running (and to make those wind-catching blades).

The World’s Biggest Engine

707 horsepower.  That’s what’s under the hood of the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk.

Fill ‘er up with 100 octane, and you can get 840 horsepower out of a Dodge Challenger SRT Demon.

Or (if $2.5 million is burning a hole through your pocket), you could be driving a Bugatti Chiron, with 1,479 horsepower at your fingertips.

And those are all impressive engines.

Until you see this.

That’s the look of 109,000 horsepower.  The biggest engine in the world.

Now it’s true, since it weighs 2,300 tons, stands 44 feet tall and is 90 feet long – you’re not going to find the Wartsila RT-flex96C in a car, any car, ever.

But what the world’s biggest engine DOES run – are ships.  Some of the world’s biggest ships, naturally.  Like the Emma Maersk (which actually was the world’s biggest container ship, when it was launched.)

But big as it is, inside the RT-flex 96C has a crankshaft, pistons…

…cylinders (14 of them), a diesel engine (with some tweaks) like the diesel engine in a car or a truck, running on diesel fuel (with some nautical tweaks).

So even though you’d have to look hard to find this (the Bugatti’s W16 engine)…

…next to this (the RT-flex 96C, installed on board)…

…the principles of the internal combustion engine are at work just the same, on land and sea.  And they both run on diesel fuels, produced from petroleum.

Now if you’d like to see the Bugatti, or the Dodge, or the Jeep, head down to your nearest dealership.  And if you can see what the Emma Maersk is up to, right now, or anytime, try VesselFinder.

(Sorry though, if you’d like to get the feel of 109,000 horsepower, you’ll have to start by applying to the Merchant Marine Academy.  The Emma Maersk, unlike the cars, is not for sale.)

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.

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.

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.

It’s in the bag (the big orange recycling bag)!

Odds are, there’s some sort of recycling program where you live – newspapers and cardboard.  Cans, glass bottles, plastic bottles.  There is for most of us these days.

It does make sense – we get a second (or third or fourth) use out of perfectly good materials.  So after finishing a bottle of juice, for instance, that old bottle can be turned into a new bottle – or a musical instrument, or cool flip flops, or the seats in a new car.

But there are some plastic materials that are tough to recycle – like potato chip bags and juice boxes – and how to give those a second life, that took some creative thinking.

And the result of that thinking (yes, it’s been done now) is, ta-da:  a big orange bag!

Now if you’re thinking, “Wait, what?”  Here’s what that means (and why it’s such a good idea).

High on that list of plastics which could be reused, but aren’t easy to recycle – are things like potato chip bags and juice pouches, which are also things a lot of us use (especially if you have kids).  Enter Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics, and the “Hefty EnergyBag” program (aka, the big orange bag).

The idea was, give every household a roll of the orange bags.  Like this…

Then along with whatever you normally you recycle, you also put out an orange bag with those “difficult” plastics.

…like those.  Your orange bag gets picked up along with your regular recycling.  But then – those bags are taken away for separate processing, using equipment that can handle those special items.

That was the idea. Now it’s been tested in pilot programs around the country – cities like Boise, Idaho; Omaha, Nebraska; Citrus Heights, California – and, it works!  So far, more than 88 tons worth of plastic has been picked up and reused, that would otherwise have wound up in landfills (that’s more than 135,400 big orange bags worth).

So now you’re thinking, “That’s good – but what do they do with that stuff, if it’s so hard to recycle?”  That’s in the pilot stages too – but one day, you might be riding to work on the answer.  Because one answer is – converting that plastic to diesel fuel, for use in buses, and trucks and cars.  (The process is called pyrolysis technology, and if you really want to know more about that, we have to send you over to Wikipedia.)

And yeah, reusing valuable natural resources?  Keeping what we’ve already used out of landfills?  That IS good.

Recycling old plastic bottles into new pavement

What’s the BPM where you live?

Ok, we’re a LITTLE ahead of ourselves – but one day soon, “Bottles Per Mile” may be how we talk about paving our streets and highways – as in, how many recycled plastic bottles are needed for each mile of pavement.

BPM doesn’t exist, yet.  But actually, recycling plastic bottles for paving roads – that is definitely happening now – in the UK and Canada, New Zealand and Australia, and in India, where the idea was first, ummm, uncapped?

Plastic to pavement makes plenty of sense.  The strength and durability of plastic bottles, which makes them good for our drinks the first time around – makes that same plastic an excellent choice for reuse.  And since not all of us are recycling our empties, finding a use for the ones that get tossed, that’s smart too.

The new generation of “plastic parkways”, is driven by a Scottish company, MacRebur.  And as they told CNN, their “recipe” uses about 20,000 plastic bottles-worth of plastic for every ton of asphalt.  Appropriately enough, finding the right mix of plastic to asphalt does sound like something out of “the Scottish play” (Macbeth) – hours of stirring big kettles (“Double, double, toil and trouble/Fire burn and cauldron bubble”).*

But unlike Macbeth, all that “toil and trouble” turned out well (maybe because they weren’t cooking up “eye of newt and toe of frog” – just pieces of plastic).  This new pavement is about 80 percent asphalt, and 20 percent of the recycled plastic.  The Scots say that the result is sixty percent stronger than a conventional road surface, and they project that it will last two to three times longer (“project”, because this is too new to have a long history out in the field).

That not only makes transportation engineers happy, fewer potholes (that STRONGER surface) is good news for everybody who fastens a seatbelt.  And maybe it just goes to show how much we can do with petroleum:  we can not only make the fuels our cars run on, we can use it to make the roads our cars drive on, and the tires our cars ride across those roads on, and…well, you get the idea.

So maybe Sting was right.  There really IS a message in a bottle.

 

It’s recycling time – really

We told you recently about the Ocean Cleanup Project – “a sort of giant plastic broom”, to sweep up plastic trash that’s now floating in the ocean.  That “broom” is out in the Pacific now on its trial run.  But after plastic is scooped up out of the water, then what?

Well, how about…

(Photo from Awake Watches)

…a very cool looking watch?

That would be the Awake watch – made with recycled plastic, recycled metal and – running on solar power.  Elle proclaimed, “This sustainable watch brand will be a smash hit.”  BuzzFeed wrote, “Awake creates flawless watches with the best solar energy.”  And they liked it on Kickstarter, where it was fully funded in just one hour.

Now, plastics are remarkable materials.  From plastics, you can make something transparent or opaque, clear or any color of the rainbow, something hard, something soft, something flexible, something stiff, something that can withstand intense heat or something that you can reshape in the warmth of your hands.  You can make a prosthetic hand or an entire exoskeleton.  You can make a package for strawberries or you can make the body of a car.

But you can also REmake all those plastics into something else, when that first something is used up, worn out.  And that’s one more thing we like about Awake – it’s a very stylish wake-up call, that our empty plastic water bottles aren’t trash, they’re raw material.

What’s even better than beer? Cement – at least in the fight against global warming

We told you recently how beer might save the planet (by helping to reduce the amount of CO2 (or if you prefer, carbon dioxide) which is going into the atmosphere, and warming up the planet).

Now, you can add cement to that list of planet-savers.

Ok, so cement as a subject is not as interesting as beer – and unless you’re in the construction business, odds are you’ve probably never ordered a round of cement.

But if there were a popularity contest, cement beats beer, hands down.  In fact, we humans “consume” (that’s the word from the statisticians, but “use” sounds better) more concrete than any other substance but one (water).  And the main ingredient of concrete is:  cement.

Case in point;  last year, we went through more than 4,600 MILLION TONS of cement – which is a lot of anything.  But that also means, when there is good news about cement – it’s a lot of good news.

And in this case, the good news is about reducing CO2 emissions by – using some of that carbon dioxide to make cement.

A research team at UCLA is developing the new approach.  Everything about this idea of “capturing”* carbon dioxide emissions is relatively new – but what makes the UCLA approach newer still is first, their idea to use that CO2 to make something new, to think of that carbon dioxide as a raw material (instead of just storing the CO2 in some way), and second, their idea to use that CO2 to improve an existing product, in this case, cement.

They believe their new material, which they call CO2NCRETE™, has the potential to be stronger than today’s cement/concrete (thanks to the carbonation).  And while it could be poured out of a cement mixer, just like the ones we see on construction sites all the time – the new material could also be put to work with different techniques, like 3D printing.

The next step, taking CO2NCRETE™ out of the lab, and lab sizes, like this…

…and making something big enough to build with. Something like this maybe…

(One of the world’s great concrete structures, the dome of the Pantheon in Rome.)

But it all starts with a new way of thinking about an old problem:  what do we with our trash.  And the new solution, whether that “trash” is CO2 being released into the air, or plastic bottles getting tossed in the ocean – is thinking of that “trash” as raw material, as a resource to make something new with.

*”Capturing” carbon dioxide means – when an industrial process, like making cement or producing power, produces CO2, instead of allowing that to go up a smokestack and into the air, the carbon dioxide is pulled out and then either stored, or used again.

Why Do Veterans Find A (Civilian) Home in the Fuels & Petrochemical Industry? Ask a Vet!

Imagine you are a 19-year-old – and your job is leading a squad of Marines in combat in Iraq.

Or picture coming straight out of high school and serving six-month tours at sea on a Navy ship, on counter-terrorism duty aboard a guided-missile frigate.

That experience can make your next job, a civilian job when you leave the service, a tough adjustment. Almost everything can feel different – the pace of the work, the meaning of the work, the commitment to the work, the people you work with. (Tough enough, in fact, that some veterans like to say your first successful civilian job is your second civilian job.)

We talked with a couple of vets recently to learn more about their transition out of uniform and into civilian life, and how they found that “second” job in the fuels and petrochemical industry with Phillips 66.

Today, Andrew Kiefer McNeill is a Territory Manager with Phillips 66 in Houston. But he was once that 19-year-old Marine going from Parris Island to two tours of duty in Iraq.

His unit, First Marine Division (the most decorated division in the Corps), was in Tikrit, Fallujah, Baghdad – names we came to know all too well.

Along with the days of boredom and misery that every soldier slogs through, “There are the days when, barely done being a kid, you are leading a group of men older than you who are depending on you to lead them through that day’s fighting, that tour’s mission, and home again.”

Which he did. McNeill didn’t go straight home after his tours of duty. He instead took off backpacking around the world and then to college where at 22, and an ex-Marine, “I felt like the world’s oldest student, sitting with 18-year-olds straight out of high school.”

Chad Harbin was an 18-year-old, straight out of high school in 2001. That was the year of 9/11 – and instead of a college classroom, he went to see a Navy recruiter to enlist.

These days, Harbin is a pressure equipment Inspector at the Phillips 66 Wood River Refinery in southern Illinois. But for six years after 9/11, his “office” was out at sea, on the USS Crommelin.

On a ship you live where you work, for six months at a time. And where you work for those six months, is a space about a football field-and-a-half long and 45 feet across. Your workplace has desks, chairs and computers, but it also comes with torpedoes, missiles and a couple of helicopters. In Harbin’s case, you have a couple hundred “co-workers,” who all depend on you to keep them going out in the middle of the ocean.

The job Harbin worked his way up to was “operating the power systems that ran – everything:  the ship’s engines, its weapons, its navigation gear, even its kitchen.” He was good at his job too, but eventually he became homesick and decided after six years to come back ashore.

In his exit interview (yes, it turns out the Navy has those too) his commanding officer (CO) told him that usually this was the moment he’d try to talk a good sailor (like Harbin) into staying. But his CO said that if Harbin wanted to go, he’d do just fine out there in the civilian world.

Once he started his first job though, Harbin wasn’t so sure. He’d been keeping a warship safe and afloat. He knew the power systems of a guided missile frigate inside and out. He was literally a defender of the free world.  And now he had a job that was – well, just a job.

McNeill knows that feeling too. “You have a job where you feel like you are making a difference, where you’re part of something bigger than yourself, that you are someone special and then, you end up as nothing.”

That’s when Phillips 66 entered the picture. Harbin had friends who worked at the Wood River Refinery and told him the refinery was hiring. McNeill had been laid off after the company he worked for was sold and agreed to meet up with a Phillips 66 rep at a “Hiring Our Heroes” event.

“Today, about 20 percent of the workers we hire for hourly positions are veterans,” said Jonathan Rosenberg, Manager, Talent Planning & Acquisition, Phillips 66, “and that’s not by chance.  We do targeted outreach to veterans, which includes using vets who are already here, working for the company.“

As Harbin explained, that’s a big deal. “It can be tough for a veteran to explain to a civilian what he or she did in the service and how that translates to a new job. It was a big sense of relief when I was interviewing and found myself talking to an ex-Navy man, who didn’t have to be told how running the power systems on a ship was very much like the work at a refinery.”

For McNeill his “fairy godmother” was an HR Team Member at Phillips 66 who saw something special in him. She marched him and his resume past the standard interviews and took him directly to the people doing the hiring, and she stuck with him until he was in.

Phillips 66 also re-educates its hiring managers, teaching them how to interview veterans like Harbin and McNeill, and how to “translate” their skills and experience to the needs of the company. There’s also a “veterans’ portal” on the Phillips 66 website, where a veteran can plug in his or her skills to see how they would fit-in. When veterans start their new jobs at Phillips 66 the company connects them with an internal group of ex-servicemen and women in the company, who work with the new hires to make that transition successful.

That commitment to hiring veterans helped bring Harbin and McNeill into Phillips 66. But what helped keep them there was a different sort of commitment on the part of the company.

Chad Harbin described it as “a similar sense of purpose.  In the Navy, I looked after the power systems my shipmates depended upon – at the refinery (which is like a small city), my co-workers and our plant’s neighbors count on me to keep it running and keep it safe. At Wood River, part of my job is making the decision to shut down the whole plant, if that’s needed to keep things safe.”

Not everyone wants that level of responsibility – but Harbin walked through the refinery gate ready to be that guy, because he already had been that guy. And being “that guy,” Harbin said, means “I can shut down the whole plant if something isn’t safe.”

McNeill actually started out as a skeptic, not sure that Phillips 66 was really interested in vets, and him in particular. As he put it, “We walk out of the military into the civilian world feeling like the world owes you something, but the world doesn’t owe you anything.” But his Phillips 66 experience showed him the company was serious about veterans. And he tells vets now who are thinking about getting into the industry to just do it, “You can find a similar sense of purpose that you had in the service, though you do have to check your inner ‘drill instructor’ at the gate.” (Civilians, he’s learned, aren’t Marines.)

Both men found that at a company whose values are “safety, honor, commitment,” where you are expected to do the right thing, where there is a sense of family among employees – that working for Phillips 66 has been that “second successful job” out in the civilian world.

And for Phillips 66, veterans bring first-rate skills that fit right into the industry. They also bring a willingness (and a capability) to take on responsibility and an ability to lead, an attitude that whatever task you start, you’re not done till it’s done, and a vast experience of problem-solving, even under unusually difficult conditions.

Oh, and maybe one other quality as well:  a sense of perspective. As McNeill says, when you’ve been under fire in a combat zone, “OMG, I dropped my phone, or Oh no, I got a flat tire – just aren’t that big a deal anymore.”

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.

The First Annual Cars and Presidents Quiz

Do you know your cars AND your American history?  Then try your hand at our Cars and Presidents quiz.

Ladies and gentlemen – start your brains (not your search engines), and good luck!

Your questions are:

And, the envelopes please:

A. Which President shared his ride with Al Capone (not at the same time, of course)?

Answer: President Roosevelt (Franklin). 

It was an armored Cadillac that had been Al Capone’s car.  This was right after Pearl Harbor, and it was a temporary measure while the official White House car was being fortified.

B. Who was the first President to ride in a car?

Answer: President McKinley. 

That, from the admittedly short list of memorable facts about President McKinley.

C. Who was the first President to ride in a car, as President (hint:  B & C are not the same president)?

Answer: President Roosevelt (Theodore). 

Theodore Roosevelt recorded a number of firsts, though to be fair, he doesn’t seem to have too fond of cars.  Of course, they’ve improved since his day.

D. Who was the first President to go to an auto show?

Answer: President Taft. 

William Howard Taft, on the other hand, DID like cars.  In fact, he officially opened “the 1913 automobile show at the Convention Hall, Washington, D.C. … by pressing a button from the White House, igniting 150,000 lights at the hall.”  Then he went over to have a look in person.

E.  When did the White House stables give way to the White House garage?

Answer: 1909

F. Which President rode in a Lincoln?

Answer: President Truman.

Though he was only the first.  His pair of Lincoln Cosmopolitans went on to serve the next three presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson).

G. Which President owned an Amphicar (it was just what it sounds like)?

Answer: President Johnson (Lyndon). 

You could have had one of these too, as the Amphicar was not an official presidential vehicle (though there were only about 3800 ever made).  Johnson kept it on his Texas ranch, and liked to scare visitors by pretending to lose control and driving into a lake (where it would float).

H. Which President said, “I am a motorist myself and know what it means to travel over rough roads.”?  (And he meant real roads, not metaphorical ones.)

Answer: President Taft. (again)

I. Who was the first President to give up the traditional horse and carriage, and ride in a car to his inauguration?

Answer: President Harding. 

Looking sharp in a Packard Twin-Six.  Looking less sharp later in his administration when the Teapot Dome scandal broke.

J. And who once called out his 1950 ‘Olds in a speech?

Answer: President Nixon. 

Ok, this was a trick question.  Nixon was only Vice-President when he mentioned his Oldsmobile, as part of a description of his modest life (the “Checkers” speech).

Thanks for playing!

Leaving…on a jet plane

Planning to fly somewhere this summer?

That wouldn’t be unusual, since almost half of us got on a plane at some point last year.  (Here’s what that would look like, by the way, if you could see the whole country from high above.  Not all small planes are included):

That animation was produced by the folks at NASA, by the way.

And you know what makes all that flying possible?  The same thing that lets you drive to the supermarket for the week’s groceries.  Fuel – made from petroleum.  The same barrel of oil that’s used to produce gasoline, also produces jet fuel.

Lucky for us, since this country of ours is a big place to travel.  East to West, New York to San Francisco for instance?  About 2,900 miles. And North-South?  Almost 2,400 miles from Maine to Miami.

And while sometimes it IS all about the journey – a lot of the time, you just want to get “there” – you just want to see your mom, or your parents just want to see your kids – your daughter just wants to get to her dorm and unpack, or everybody just wants to unroll their towels on the beach.  Maybe you can’t wait to row out on that lake, or for the curtain to rise on an opera you’ve never seen before.

There are a lot of reasons we travel.  But when you want the miles in between here and there to go by as quickly as possible, say 500 miles an hour – for that, you want a plane.  And a plane, wants fuel.

For example, a Boeing 787, the new Dreamliner, takes more than 33,000 gallons of jet fuel to fill up.  Even for the newest, fuel-saving planes (and the Dreamliner is one of those),  it’s still a big job to get a few hundred people (and their luggage) 35,000 feet up in the air and across the country.

(So maybe it’s just as well that supermarkets don’t have points programs for jet fuel.  Somebody would have to eat a LOT of kale to fill one of those planes up.)

The key ingredient in that jet fuel though, is something that’s been around a long time:  kerosene.  Jet fuel is a more purified version, and there are some other things in it, like anti-freeze (it’s COLD up there at 35,000 feet).  But in principle, it’s the same kerosene that our parents’ parents’ parents’ parents might have used in a lamp, for light.

Wondering which came first, jets or jet fuel?  Jet fuel wins that race, or at least kerosene does.  In the modern era, kerosene was being distilled from petroleum by the time of the Civil War.  The first jet doesn’t take off till the 1930s.

So if you are flying on a plane somewhere this summer, enjoy your trip.  And remember, every flight starts with the jet fuel made from a barrel of oil, and the security line at the airport.

Honky Tonk Polymers: Making Music with Plastics, Part 2

Recently we told you the story of the Res-o-Glas guitar – that plastic guitar from the ‘60s with the shimmery sound, played by a long list of rock gods, from Bob Dylan to Jack White.

Plastic, Fantastic…Guitars: Making Music with Plastics, Part 1

But that’s just Chapter 1 of the plastics and music story.  You could put together an entire band, or orchestra, using instruments built with polymers (“polymer” you’ll recall, is the fancy name for plastic).

Take jazz, for instance, and the saxophone.  Among his instruments, the great Charlie Parker played an acrylic saxophone made by Grafton, and on occasion, so did Rudy Vallee (when he wasn’t singing).  And it wasn’t a Grafton, but David Bowie’s first musical instrument (he was 10 or 11 at the time) was – a plastic saxophone.

There’s a plastic trombone too – the pBone.  (And yes, there’s a pTrumpet too.)  If you’re curious about the chemistry of that music, the pBone is made from ABS plastic, made possible by petrochemicals (in this case, you take a little acrylonitrile, a little styrene, a little butadiene…and a few chemical reactions later, you’ve got a trombone).

So that brass section – “76 polymer pBones led the big parade”?  Well, maybe it works better for the music than the lyrics…

Oh, and if you know your marching band, you know the Sousaphone (named for JP, of course).  Fiberglass has been the material of choice for many of the Sousaphones serenading high school football games from coast to coast, since the 1960s.

Now, if you want some rhythm to back up those horns?  Mylar© might be more familiar as the stuff shiny balloons are made of – but for years now, it’s also been used on the snares, traps and the rest of the drum kit.  Other polymers, like Kevlar©, make an appearance on the skins, (though Kevlar is probably more familiar to most of us as body armor.  And more on THAT side of Kevlar in a future story).

Crossing over to the woodwinds – yeah, a lot of today’s clarinets, piccolos and oboes (recorders too, if you like that elementary school sound) might fairly be called polymerwinds (alright, that sounds terrible).  And if you have a budding flute player in the house – he or she might well be starting out on a jFlute (thanks, ABS).

Should you be one of our readers with a few years behind you, the name Arthur Godfrey might ring a bell.  Or more properly, might pluck a string – since he was famous for his ukulele (And famous he was.  At his peak in the early ‘50s, he had a Monday night TV show, a Tuesday night TV show and a radio talk show).  When he endorsed the Islander ukulele, made from Styron© (a Dow Chemical polystyrene), 9 million of them sold over the next 20 years.

And because these ukes were plastic, you could play ‘em in the shower, or drop them in the sink, and they’d be just fine.

Now if you like your stringed instruments a bit more in the Mozartian vein, you’ll find polymers there too.  The instrument makers Luis and Clark, for instance, make a full line of carbon fiber classical strings – from violins and violas, up to a string bass.  (And Yo-Yo Ma really likes their cello, so they must be onto something).

Plastic, Fantastic…Guitars: Making Music with Plastics, Part 1

What’s red and white and far-out all over?

A Res-O-Glas guitar, of course.

Ask Jack White or the Cure’s Robert Smith – John Fogerty or Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys –  Bob Dylan, even Eugene Strobe (we’ll get to him in a minute).  They’ve all taken the stage with Res-O-Glas at one time or another.

“Every guitar has a personality…sometimes they feedback more – sometimes they have this kind of, almost kind of toy-sound quality to them…they really have a unique sound…”

And that’s what Eugene Strobe is talking about, describing the sound he gets from HIS Res-O-Glas today.  You can HEAR what he’s talking about, in this intro to AM/FM (his band is Cosmic Light Shapes).

That sound, comes from the “Glas” in Res-O-Glas.  These guitars were made out of fiberglass, which is plastic reinforced with glass fiber.  That made them lightweight, and gave them that distinctive sound.

The original Res-O-Glas guitars go back to the early Sixties, when guitars were expensive.  Res-O-Glas wasn’t, then.  (They are, now – because they aren’t made anymore.)  And back in their day, the place you could buy these guitars, made by Valco (a long-gone American guitar maker) was – Montgomery Ward (yes, we’ll pause for a moment, while younger readers Google that name.

Back now?  We continue then.).

As groovy as Res-O-Glas guitars were, and are – it isn’t the guitar for everyone.  Oh, it’s true, for instance, that Jimi Hendrix started with one.  Then he gave it up (maybe when he discovered that fiberglass is inflammable).

Or, if you’re the DIY-type, Guitar Kits USA has what you need to build your own, and you can put the money you save toward a bass or drum kit.  Just sayin.

In Making Music with Plastics, Part 2 – if you thought plastic guitars were outta sight, we’ve got a piano for you.  A whole symphony, in fact.