Monthly Archives: October 2007

Locked Up With Green Chemistry


Inmates at San Quentin State Prison, outside of San Francisco, are some of the few in the country with access to higher education learning. Thanks to the Prison University Program, which relies on financial support from donors and volunteer teachers, prisoners can take classes in a range of classes, including Environmental Science, Biology, Calculus and, recently, Chemistry. The cover story for October 22′s Chemical & Engineering News is all about the chemistry class being taught this year, and some of the inmates who are taking it. Several of the inmates taking the chemistry class show particular interest in environmental issues:

San Quentin State Prison inmate Michael Gallardo is a heavy-set but soft-spoken man who has a bachelor’s degree in business from the Philippines. He says the class has made him aware of his role in protecting the environment. Before the class, he says, he had wanted to get a Hummer after leaving prison. Now, he says, he’d rather get a hybrid because it’s better for the environment.


Inmate Rodney Scott is easygoing and talks in a manner that conveys a sense of lightheartedness. He is also taking chemistry for the first time and says he wants to start a business in toxic waste cleanup after he leaves San Quentin. He used to clean up toxic waste on the street, he says. “Now, with my chemical background, I have a better understanding than I had before. Now, I’ll know how to neutralize things and understand how it happens.”


It is maddening to know that, even though prisoners with access to education are less likely to return to prison once they are released, there are less than TEN prisons in the US with higher education programs:

Studies show that prisoners who participate in educational programming are at a lower risk of relapsing into crime after being released from prison. A 2001 study conducted by the Correctional Education Association, for instance, reported that prisoners who participated in correctional education were 29% less likely to be incarcerated again than prisoners who did not participate in such programming.

In the late 1980s, the number of higher education programs in U.S. prisons soared to 350. Many prisoners enrolled in these programs were eligible for Federal Pell Grants—which are typically given to low-income undergraduate students—to help pay their tuition fees. In 1994, however, the Violent Crime Control & Law Enforcement Act banned the distribution of Pell Grants for inmate higher education. Consequently, the number of prison higher education programs dropped to fewer than 10 by 1996.

Also maddening is this kind of ignorance:

“Chemistry sounds scary to prison administrators,” Lewen says, explaining that officials are concerned that inmates could learn how to make illegal drugs or explosives. “But a lot of the obstacles that you run into are people’s imaginations,” she adds.

Especially when inmates are just as likely as the rest of us to realize how interesting and practical chemistry can be, once they get into it. Take Scott, for example:

Scott says he gets together with his classmates during recreation time to study. “I’m finding out that I’m a nerd, and I’m proud of it,” he says. “There are a lot of guys here that feel this way.”

For some more crazy stats on the US prison system, check out this interactive prison report from Mother Jones.


Get ‘em When They’re Old, Too

Grandma vs. the Oil-Sands Mine


Eighty-five-year-old grandmothers aren’t typically subject to censorship, but Liz Moore is no ordinary grandma. After touring an oil-sands operation in Canada, Moore returned to her home in Colorado and began researching the mining process. Eventually, she spent $3,600 on a website that chronicles the destructive environmental impacts of oil-sands mining.

“I was appalled at what I saw—the devastation of the land,” she says of her visit to a Syncrude mine in Fort McMurray, Alberta. “I came home and decided people in the U.S. needed to hear about this, because we’ll be buying more and more oil from Canada.”

Soon legal threats arrived. The mining giant Syncrude Canada Ltd. and a branch of the Alberta government threatened legal action if Moore did not remove certain photos from the website, she says.

“It made me angry at a very deep level,” Moore says. “I don’t like censorship, and if it’s done to me, I like it even less.” Moore later learned that a release she signed before her tour gave the company the right to limit the use of her photos.

Excerpts from Moore’s presentation:oilsand72.jpg

















To see the entire presentation, check grandma Moore’s website,


Vertigro: Algae & Agriculture

Algae is a personal favorite of ours here at green.mnp, as you can see here, here and here, and some of you may have seen in the October issue of National Geographic. Well, here is another exciting algae harvesting technology we came across by Valcent Products Inc. They call the technology Vertigro, and I will let their CEO Glen Kertz explain the rest (double click his face to watch the video):

Data received from Valcent’s continuously operating test bed facility demonstrates that yields up to 4,000 barrels oil per acre, per year, at an estimated cost of $20 per barrel are achievable on a commercial scale. As a comparison, typically corn will yield up to one-half a barrel of oil per acre per year at considerably higher cost; palm oil, with highest yield of conventional sources, delivers approximately fifteen barrels of oil per acre per year. After a demonstration pilot plant is in operation, several production units that may total 1,000 acres may be built which would have the potential of producing approximately 4,000,000 barrels of oil per year, with significant carbon dioxide green credits and other commercial products. At that rate of production, Vertigro will sequester approximately 2,700,000 tons C02 per year which will be sold as a green credit within the emerging green credit system within the USA and within the Kyoto Protocols.

Interestingly, Valcent has also applied the concept of the Vertigro technology to growing herbs and veggies. They call it the High Desity Vertical Growth System:

[the energy blog]

Dirty Silicon + Cali Sun =

Clean energy, ninjas! Cali/Berlin-based start-up company, CaliSolar has developed a way to use lower grade silicon to produce photovoltaic cells, thanks to research done at UC Berkeley by former Professor Eike Weber who is now in Germany at the Frauhofer Institute.


The difference between the 99.99999% purity of electrical grade silicon that most PV manufacturers use and the 99% purity of ‘dirty’ metallurgical grade silicon is profound. Not only is the lower grade silicon cheaper ($20-$50/kg versus $150-$250/kg for electrical grade), but there is vastly more of it available, with 1.2 million tons/year made, as opposed to only 70,000 tons/year of electrical grade. Both of these qualities – cost and raw material supply, are crucial to the sustainability of the PV solar industry. The reason most PV companies don’t use the cheaper dirty silicon is that impurities in the material get in the way of the capture and conversion of sunlight to energy:

Photovoltaic solar panels generate electricity by separating negative charges from positive charges contained in the sunlight that strikes them. The negative charges (electrons) are then captured, converted to AC power, and then used to power things in your house. Pure silicon is usually needed because impurities prevent electron capture.CaliSolar gets around this by isolating the impurities during manufacturing. The impurities can be channeled into the borders between crystals, Johnson said, which don’t generate electricity anyway. The impurities can also be coaxed, through chemical and physical forces, to “float” to the top of a wafer, where they can be etched off. In other words, it nullifies the effect of the impurities by coming up with ways to ensure that the impurities aren’t uniformly distributed.


The solar cells coming out of CaliSolar’s labs are already roughly competitive with standard silicon solar cells in terms of efficiency, said Johnson, a former networking executive. If CaliSolar can mass manufacture solar cells with a 14 percent efficiency rating–which means that they will convert 14 percent of the sunlight that strikes them into electricity–these solar cells will cost far less than the 16 percent efficiency cells that are common on the market today.

The key word here is ‘if’. CaliSolar will need to raise $30-50 million in order to get an industrial sized manufacturing plant up and running. They have raised $9 to get a smaller prototype factory going.

[cnet news]

white house vs climate change


Inquiring ninja minds want to know : why does this administration hate the earth? But to be egotistic and selfish about it even, why does it hate us [people]? “The White House severely edited congressional testimony given Tuesday, Oct. 23rd, by the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the impact of climate change on health, removing specific scientific references to potential health risks, according to two sources familiar with the documents.” [via CNN - click the link to read the article].

Savage Worms: Week 5 (post Red Sox mania)

We have happy worms this week. Not a one of ‘em was crawling up the side trying to escape. We even found a little baby worm (in the foreground). Cutie.


And an ever-more disgusting scrap bin. If you did not believe me about the smell, maybe the fungal growth will convince you:


We’re going to try feeding the worms more frequently, since they seem healthy (for the most part…) and happy. Hopefully they will eat more and help us get rid of all the crap, i mean scraps. Their appetites seem hearty, as you can see by the avocado pit below that they have been licking clean:


Alas, we found another dead worm. This time the little guy was in the bin and looked strangely dehydrated:

If you’re new to green.mnp, read up on the (brief but fascinating) history of our Savage Worms!

Chicago School Buses Burning Biodiesel


CHICAGO – The nation’s largest independent school bus company, the Cook Illinois Corporation in Chicago, is switching its entire fleet of school buses to burn bio diesel fuel.

Research shows that biodiesel reduces hydrocarbons in exhaust fumes by more than 30 percent. Studies reveal that children riding school buses are exposed to higher level of emission toxins than other children. Exhaust emissions inhaled on a consistent basis, particularly exhaust from diesel engines, have been linked as a cause of asthma and other respiratory conditions.

The company, Cook Illinois Corporation, last year reduced nearly 1,000 tons of toxic emissions in Chicago by switching to a biodiesel fuel in many of its buses. Chicago School Transit is owned and operated by Cook-Illinois Corporation, Oak Forest, IL. Cook Illinois Corporation was the first bus service company in the Chicago area and one of the first in the nation to use bio diesel fuel.

The new Clean Air Club website, is available for all school children who care about the environment. Kids who log on to the website can play games and win prizes.

[environmental news network]