Now that we’ve had a couple days to rest up from the long presidential campaign, it’s time to get busy again. President-elect Obama is not going to govern from the left, or even that mythological “middle” everyone seems content to obsess over – he’ll govern from the hard right, only subtly, as Bill Clinton did. Those who thought to use him as a springboard to enacting progressive policy failed to understand that Obama is a user, not someone who lets himself be used. Let’s begin the work of making that fanciful notion so many of us held a reality.
I’ve done my criticism, and I’ll continue to criticize, because I take Theodore’s admonition regarding presidents to heart. But this entry is about offering up ideas and starting points; future ones shall be along this line of argument. We absolutely must organize, unite, and apply pressure before the tiny window of opportunity between now and January closes. We cannot afford a repeat of the Clinton years.
A good first step is in redirecting oil policy away from the industry and more toward independence – alternative, renewable sources of energy, naturally, but in other areas as well. The September-October issue of Science Illustrated contained a piece on bioplastics, that is, plastics made with chemicals derived from plant-based chemicals instead of petroleum. I wasn’t able to find a direct link to the magazine article, unfortunately, but I did locate links pertaining to the subject.
From the first link:
Scientists are one step closer to replacing crude oil as the main source for plastic, fuels and scores of other industrial and household chemicals with inexpensive, non-polluting renewable plant matter (Science, vol. 316. no. 5831, pp. 1597-1600, June 15, 2007). “What we have done that no one else has been able to do is convert glucose directly in high yields to a primary building block for fuel and polyesters,” says Z. Conrad Zhang, senior author who led the research and a scientist with the PNNL-based Institute for Interfacial Catalysis (UC; iic.pnl.gov). That building block is hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), a chemical derived from carbohydrates such as glucose and fructose and that is viewed as a promising surrogate for petroleumbased chemicals.
Glucose, in plant starch and cellulose, is nature’s most abundant sugar. “But getting a commercially viable yield of HMF from glucose has been very challenging,” says Zhang. “In addition to low yield, until now, we always generated many different byproducts,” including levulinic acid, making product purification expensive and uncompetitive with petroleum-based chemicals.
Zhang, lead author and former post doc Haibo Zhao, and colleagues John Holladay and Heather Brown, all from PNNL, were able to coax HMF yields upward of 70% from glucose and nearly 90% from fructose, while leaving only traces of acid impurities. To achieve this, they experimented with a novel nonacidic catalytic system containing metal chloride catalysts in an ionic liquid capable of dissolving cellulose. The ionic liquid, enabled the metal chlorides to convert the sugars to HMF.
What this means is that scientists are making glucose-derived plastics a viable alternative to the petroleum-based variety we commonly use. As the first step toward moving away from reliance on fossil fuels, funding and regulations could be implemented so as to grow the bioplastics industry. Glucose can be gotten from straw and saw dust – waste products generated by the agricultural and wood industries – for example, meaning freeing up more farmland for food production.
Combined with passing laws raising fuel efficiency standards, improving public transportation, and creating advertising campaigns to promote carpooling and energy efficiency, pushing bioplastics may be used to start us on the road to energy independence. With fossil fuels dwindling, and wars to obtain control over sources increasing in frequency and intensity, this is a matter of genuine pragmatism and economic sensibility. It’s also something to press our elected officials over. President Obama will not be so stupid as to oppose his own political party if it passes progressive legislation.