May 15, 2013
Host: Ted Simons
Lawrence Krauss on Science
- World-Famous ASU Physicist Lawrence Krauss brings us up to date on the latest science news.
- Lawrence Krauss - Physicist, ASU
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Ted Simons: It's time again for our monthly science news update with ASU physicist Lawrence Krauss. Tonight we talk about unprecedented carbon dioxide levels and potential breakthroughs in both solar and electronics technology. Here now is Lawrence Krauss. How are you doing?
Lawrence Krauss: It's good to be here, as always.
Ted Simons: Good to have you here as always. Let's start with this business of new info on monitoring of CO2. It's getting up there.
Lawrence Krauss: Yeah, you know, there's a curve called the keeling curve named after Professor Keeling, who was started in the 1950s, moderating the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere, which goes up and down during the year as vegetation grows and dies. But in fact, it's the basis of our understanding of the fact that the greenhouse effect is happening. And it's been elevating up every year, and it's now reached a threshold that many people feared. In fact it was 315 parts per million when he started, I believe. And now it's past the 400 parts per million. There was one day last week where for a full 24 hours, because it depends on the time of day, it goes up and down, but for a full 24 hours it passed the 400 parts per million level, which was a threshold we hoped not to get to.
Ted Simons: How do we know this is the highest level ever? We know this index, but what about ever?
Lawrence Krauss: Ever, since humans have been human, at least. One of the ways we can do that is by look at ice cores, drilling deep ice cores down in Antarctica. The ice builds up, and as ice forms, air bubbles get trapped in the ice. And you can like a tree in fact, by looking at rings of a tree, by drilling down and looking at those cores, you can see -- You can measure the air bubbles as a function of height, and that's as a function of time. And you go back 500,000 years, and measure the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, and you can see that it was never near, never near what it is now. Over the last 500,000 years. There are times in human history when it was much greater. It was very important for the history of the earth actually when the earth formed, the sun was 15% cooler, or -- Basically 15% cooler, and the earth would have been an ice cube except there was 10,000 times more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back then. And that greenhouse effect kept the oceans liquid. So in fact it was important for the evolution of life. But that was 4 billion years ago.
Ted Simons: We didn't have New York City or civilization going on.
Lawrence Krauss: We can measure the sea levels at the same time as we measure the carbon dioxide levels over those 500,000 years, and the sea levels have gone up and down. Even though it's never achieved the level it has now, the sea levels have gone up and down by 80 meters.
Ted Simons: So with this in mind, you wrote something about us being able to remove and sequester CO2 from the atmosphere.
Lawrence Krauss: What people don't realize is they think, OK, we can put it off, we have a bad economy now, we can put it off. But this is cumulative. The carbon dioxide that is in the atmosphere now will stay there, even if we turned off everything now, would stay there for a few thousand years. So no matter what we do, and we're not doing much, unfortunately, address the production of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we're going to have to begin to wonder whether we need to reduce it. Because at 400 parts per million, there is going to be severe consequences. And as I say, we stopped all industrial production now, it wouldn't go below 400 parts per million. So we began to think about whether it's necessary to at least begin to investigate the need to reduce it from the atmosphere. And that means directly take it out from the atmosphere. Right now at coal plants, we can try and remove the carbon dioxide in the flues. But people have proposed actually trying to just have devices that will trap carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and eventually reduce the level. Because we're in a situation now, and there's no evidence that we're cutting back, so as bad as it was is nowhere near as high as we're going to get. We could get to 450,500 before we get to our senses.
Ted Simons: So how would you capture this stuff in the air?
Lawrence Krauss: There's a lot of proposals out there. And one is to -- One that is particularly interesting is to use resin that when it's dry will capture carbon dioxide and when it's wet will release it. And you can use -- Otherwise the energy cost of doing this is incredibly -- You know, trees store carbon dioxide, and -- But it all has an energy cost. And you don't want to use more energy to trap the carbon dioxide than you need to otherwise it's pointless endeavor. So this is interesting, because what you basically do is go to dry parts of the country, trap the carbon dioxide, then you run water over it and as the water evaporates, you run the water out, release the carbon dioxide which you then sequester underground, then let the water evaporate by sunlight and then repeat the whole process again. The question is, is this practical? And the answer is we don't know. But the point is, we're spending hundreds of billions of dollars on subsidies for fossil fuel exploration and amenities, but we're not funding research at all. At the level of even millions of dollars. So what we've argued is we have to start thinking about these new technologies and fund research to see if they're practical.
Ted Simons: Is anyone thinking about these new technologies?
Lawrence Krauss: There are lots -- Yeah. We had a meeting here at ASU and there's a group at Columbia that's been thinking about these new technologies that claim it's practical. But they don't have any government support. Or any private investor support. So there are a lot of ideas about ways to trap and sequester carbon dioxide, and we don't know if they're practical. I'm skeptical about many of them. But unless you invest the money to see, then you'll never know. And I guess the point is we're approaching a climate emergency. We've been saying that for a while. But hopefully maybe the 400 part per million level, which we've been dreading getting to, will be enough of a wake-up call that maybe we should spend some money.
Ted Simons: It's almost like someone who has clogged arteries decides to exercise and eat right, that's great, but the arteries are still clogged.
Lawrence Krauss: Exactly. We've created a mess -- A lot of people say, why should we in the United States be thinking about this right now China is a big polluter. But the point is, we created the mess. Most of the carbon dioxide that's up there was based on industrial activity in this country. And so in some sense you'd say we have an ethical obligation to at least think about cleaning it up.
Ted Simons: Let's talk about something that I think you would be even more skeptical about. I thought this was fascinating. A guy by the name of Ronald Ace. It's a good name. He invents what he's calling a flat panel solar trap that could be able to -- It sounds to me, I'm talking to you like I know what I'm talking about, but it sounds like it would be able to store high temperatures. Store solar energy.
Lawrence Krauss: It sounds too good to be true.
Ted Simons: It does.
Lawrence Krauss: And most things that sound too good to be true are too good to be true. It was announced in an article that this guy had filed a patent for this new technology. But I have to say, it has all the ear marks that make me worry. First of all I'm always skeptical about any new claim. Revolutionary discoveries are usually wrong. But this has another trap. He doesn't want to talk about the details because he wants to wait until the patent. So it's all secret. So no one has been able to peer review it. It's this incredible discovery -- Except a friend of his who's reviewed the calculation and says oh, it's obvious when you see this. I have seen this happen so many times before. If you want to make a bet about whether it's going to work -- there are a lot of smart people who have been spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to make solar panels more efficient. If we could, it would be incredibly important. Now, it's not impossible that someone working in their basement comes up with some idea that many, many scientists who spend their lives on this haven't come up with it. It's certainly not impossible, but it's highly unlikely. As I've told you before, I have this policy, I like to keep my mind open but not so open my brains fall out.
Ted Simons: There's no peer review, no working prototype --
Lawrence Krauss: Just calculations.
Ted Simons: OK. And the best friend says this guy is a genius. Besides all that, why can't we store energy over like 1,400 degrees -- Whatever it is? Why is that so difficult?
Lawrence Krauss: The problem is it's a law of physics that you radiate more efficiently the higher the temperature. The hotter you are, the better you radiate. And so you want to get these things hot to make it efficient turbine to run power, but the hotter they get, the more quickly they radiate the energy that you put in. And it turns out at about 1,400 or 1,600 degrees these things radiate out more energy than you're putting in. It's a simple law of physics. The power radiated goes as the fourth power of the temperature. And -- of any system. So black bodies radiate more efficiently when they're hotter. And it's hard to overcome that basic law of physics.
Ted Simons: Last point on this, he's describing it as something similar to a black hole in space. Everything goes in there and it's captured, you're not buying that.
Lawrence Krauss: That makes me even worried more.
Ted Simons: Alright. We'll move on and talk about something called graphing, which apparently there's some new discovery here, what is graphing?
Lawrence Krauss: Graphing actually won the Nobel prize in physics in 2010 for two guys at the University of Manchester. Really interesting physicists, one of whom had a hard time finding a job, have you got -- So what graphing is, it's carbon, just plain old carbon, like graphite, but it's a single atomic layer. It's carbon atoms layered in hexagons over a single plane. Carbon is a fascinating material. In a certain case it looks like coal, or graphite for a pencil, diamond is another configuration. Another Nobel prize was given a while ago, if you let the carbon molecules form carbon atoms for molecules, they form these Bucky balls. 60 carbon atoms form something like a dome. And they're strong, and they can conduct electricity in an interesting way, and they were given Nobel prize. People have predicted if you could somehow make a single atomic layer of carbon, forming these hexagons, it would be incredibly strong and have really interesting electronic properties. In fact it would be so strong, a single layer of this, like a layer of paper, would be able to hold up a four kill gram cat, but the material would weigh as much as the cat's whisker. It would be the strongest material. So these guys --
Ted Simons: We've been looking at this, what is this?
Lawrence Krauss: The hexagons are a carbon layer that's built on a substrate, but they've put this weird hot complex molecule on top of it, and they found out that it orders itself to produce kind of a magnet. That's interesting. The conduction properties of graphene are interesting. It's been produced. They produced it, let me just say, not by that very fancy substrate layer, but they just peeled graphite off and used scotch tape to pull off a single atomic layer, then melted the tape and that's how they did it. It was literally in the Nobel museum they have scotch tape dispenser. That is really low tech, not high-tech. But -- And they produced this single layer and found out it has these incredible electronic properties, but if you could make a magnet on it, then you could use it to store magnets -- Store more information. Because the electrons that are on that surface that move around in a magnet, if they're spinning, if they spin in one direction, they have a different energy than if they spin in the other direction. And that allows you to store information, and that allows a whole new set of possibilities for creating magnetic storage, optical storage, all sorts of new things. The amazing thing about graphene is they won the prize, because it had great promise. It hasn't yet produced new devices. But this is one big step towards -- If you can make a magnet on top of graphene, you can use it to make all sorts of new storage devices.
Ted Simons: When you mention spinning, is that when they talk about spintronics?
Lawrence Krauss: It's like electronics but Spintronics You can store -- Obviously these devices can be used to move currents, because they have very high conductivity, but if you want to store information, you can store it by storing charges, which is one of the ways we do in computers, but if you can store information using electronic spins you have twice as much information to store. If they're spinning this way the magnets turn this way, if they're spinning this way, the magnets produce that way, and there's two spin states as well as each charge state. So spintronics is a way to make storage smaller and quicker. It's the next stage of information technology.
Ted Simons: OK. The next stage, how soon before this next stage arrives? How big a deal is this?
Lawrence Krauss: Well, it's very exciting. I'm always worried about the hype, but it's an important step. I was kind of surprised, frankly, they gave the Nobel prize for graphene when they did. It was something that clearly had great promise, but usually something has to show the promise works before it does. But every bit of evidence suggests it's going to be a material that's the strongest material ever made, let me say that. The strongest material ever made. It's got conductivity levels that have never been observed before, and now that you can create magnets on it, it's almost on the threshold of revolutionizing information technology. We'll see if it does, but I'm much less skeptical of that than I am of the solar power-–
Ted Simons: You mean the black hole of solar energy--
Lawrence Krauss: The picture you saw was based on electron micrograph, so it's been done. Promising to do something and actually doing it are two different things.
Ted Simons: You scientists.
Lawrence Krauss: What can you do? It's a tough life but someone has to do.
Ted Simons: Thanks for joining us as always.
- A reporter from the Arizona Capitol Times will give us the latest news from the state legislature.
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Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. The logjam over the budget and Medicaid expansion may be nearing an end. Here to give us the latest is Luige Del Puerto, of "The Arizona Capitol Times." Good to see you. Very busy day. Let's just start from ground zero. This all begins with senate president Andy Biggs deciding he's got a plan.
Luige Del Puerto: Senate president Andy Biggs decided to push ahead with his own budget proposal, and that started the ball rolling. His budget plan includes his alternative proposal to the governor's Medicaid expansion. Basically what he's seeking to do is for the state to pay for the childless adult population, we are going to continue the freeze to their -- On their enrollment and if the feds decide they are not going to pay or to continue or expand their share of the costs of paying for their insurance, the state alone would pay for that. Of course that runs counter to the governor's own Medicaid expansion proposal. And so that started the ball rolling it.
Ted Simons: Sounds like the senate plan was similar to the governor's plan except for that one big caveat.
Luige Del Puerto: That's true. There are several portions of the senate plan that is close to what the governor wants to do when it comes for money for CPS, for example. The way it's described the governor should be happy with the rest of the budget plan except the Medicaid portion.
Ted Simons: So with that in mind, was this a surprise move by the senate president? Was it an unusual move?
Luige Del Puerto: It wasn't necessarily a surprise move on the part of the president. He's been trying very hard to get a budget in the last few weeks. He tried this tactic before, and it has failed. It has failed because he doesn't have the support to get a budget out without the Medicaid expansion proposal, that the governor wants to see in the budget. Now, by actually doing this now, he may in fact be facilitating the beginning of the ending of this Medicaid expansion debate. Because there is no way that this budget -- the press is offering -- What the president is offering will get out of the senate without the governor's Medicaid expansion proposal. Either that, or the budget fails.
Ted Simons: So it sounds like the votes are there in the senate.
Luige Del Puerto: Yes.
Ted Simons: For the expansion plan.
Luige Del Puerto: Yes. That's true. What's likely going to happen is that now that the senate appropriation committee has approved all 10 budget bills, they're going to move to the floor for debate and a third reading tomorrow. Senator John McComish will offer the Medicaid expansion amendment to one of the bills, and as far as we can tell there are sufficient votes to pass the particular amendment and to get the budget out of the senate.
Ted Simons: That means there are a number of Republicans going along with the idea of expansion. How many, who are they?
Luige Del Puerto: There's at least three, there could be up to five members. We know, for example, that senator Rich Crandall, senator Bob Worsley and Steve Pearce have all declared support for the proposal. Of course we have senator John McComish who said he's in support of the plan. And we will likely see senator Bob Worsley also supporting this proposal.
Ted Simons: So we had a hearing today -- Everything else went pro forma as far as the appropriations hearing? Any fireworks?
Luige Del Puerto: It was a pretty civil discussion, democrats pretty much voted against the budget. It was a part line -- party line vote. They had a chance to criticize the points of the budget and basically said we need more funding for this area, that area. But it was pretty civil and they got a budget out. I think in a shorter time than most people had anticipated.
Ted Simons: The floor debate is set for tomorrow, and that we should get at least sparklers going.
Luige Del Puerto: We should get fireworks. I think President Andy Biggs has declared several times he's opposed to Medicaid. There are a good number of Republican senators who are adamant against this proposal, and on the other hand, we have this group of senators, Democrats and Republicans, who want to see it through and like I said, they have the votes.
Ted Simons: I want to get to the house, but as far as today, with everything else going on in appropriations, that's a lot of bills passed, a lot of budget stuff going on was there any concern there this was rushed, not as transparent as it should have been?
Luige Del Puerto: I didn't hear so much of that. I think people expect at some point somebody has to give in. Some would have to start this process. And senate president Andy Biggs started this process, and in a way facilitated the passage of the governor's expansion proposal. We don't know that for sure, because once the senate approves this budget plan, with the governor's Medicaid expansion proposal in it, it moves over to the house, and now it is in a house speaker Andy Tobin's court.
Ted Simons: Let us move to the house as well. It sounds like the speaker is floating his own idea, letting you and me decide.
Luige De Puerto: Yes. The speaker wants to punt this Medicaid question over to the voters. The key differences in the way he would want this Medicaid expansion to happen, but basically the speaker and the governor agrees that the state should expand its AHCCCS coverage to 133% -- To cover those who earn up to 133% of the federal poverty level. That's a key element in both proposals.
Ted Simons: But still in all, why is he punting? My impression is he thinks he needs a two-thirds vote is that one of the reasons?
Luige Del Puerto: There's speculations about why he's doing it. He may be trying to protect his members, to give them as much political cover as possible by punting this question to the voters. They're not directly violating the constitution, maybe, they're not directly raising taxes. Or they're not directly putting themselves in the line of fire. The Republican grass-roots are adamantly against this proposal. That may be one of it. There is another speculation that he's probably doing it just to start the discussion. Meaning to say, he may not necessarily ultimately push for moving over the questions, but he wants to offer his proposal. So then he has a starting point. This is what he wants, this is what the governor wants, maybe they can meet somewhere in the middle.
Ted Simons: When they find out what the senate wants and it's sent over there, of those three ideas, making us make the decision, the senate's budget coming over by way of senator McComish, or the third, what?
Luige Del Puerto: The third one would be the state basically paying for the insurance --
Ted Simons: Which is not going to happen.
Luige Del Puerto: It's probably DOA in the senate. I don't see the senate passing the senate president's Medicaid alternative proposal. In fact, what we know right now is that there's -- Of the three options, there's only one that has sufficient support of passing the senate and most likely the house. That's the governor's plan.
Ted Simons: Referral to the ballot is one thing, but when you send it to the senate what's going to happen there?
Luige Del Puerto: The five Republicans and the third democrats in the senate who support the governor's expansion plan are probably going to balk at the idea of punting this question to voters.
Ted Simons: Does it seem like the president of the senate and the speaker of the house are on the same page?
Luige Del Puerto: Clearly they are not. Senate president Biggs has his own proposal. He initiated his budget process by saying here's our senate budget plan, and the speaker has his own proposal about how to go about with Medicaid expansion. So clearly they are not on the same page.
Ted Simons: Not on the same page, but they could be within the same ballpark because they both realize something's got to be done, they gotta get out of there and this may get a couple balls rolling toward the finish line.
Luige Del Puerto: I think what's happening is that we are seeing the beginning of the ending of this Medicaid expansion debate for. For the last four months or so this subject has dominated the state capitol and subsumed every other major issue we have out there. Finally, by having three alternative proposals, we could see one of them finally getting out.
Ted Simons: It certainly dominates our discussions on our weekly legislative update with "The Arizona Capitol Times." We look forward to exciting times tomorrow during the floor debate.