G-7 Pledge: No carbon by the year 2100.

June 13, 2015

white-semi-truckThe G-7 or Group of 7 major industrialized nations at their summit this week pledged to reduce the carbon footprint in their economies, and further to completely remove all carbon by the year 2100 or 85 years from now. The G-7 includes Canada, the United States, European countries like Germany, France and the UK, and Asian powerhouse Japan. Eighty-five years sounds like a long time, but think for a moment what no carbon would mean to our society and our lifestyle expectations.

It means no carbon fuels such as gasoline, diesel or jet fuel allowed. Planes, trains and automobiles will no longer exist in our world unless they were powered by non-carbon fuels. That means no coal, no natural gas and no crude oil in any form. They’re all are carbon-based.

Hydrogen, nuclear, solar or wind power are the potential alternatives. Visualize cars and trucks adorned with sails moving on our highways much like the sailors of old. Perhaps solar panels will be much smaller and more efficient by then and drivers will have vehicles constructed of solar panels top to bottom. When the wind dies we’ll be stranded, becalmed like sailors of old, or if it’s cloudy or when night falls drivers will be unable to go further that day.

Electric cars are also an option but remember the power to charge them is generated now by fossil fuels (carbon). Proliferation of electric powered cars means more power to be generated.

Nuclear power is non-carbon but we’d have to develop compact nuclear reactors to power our vehicles. Would we really want millions of nuclear cores traveling down our highways and byways at high speed. Accidents might result in nuclear explosions or at best meltdowns and radioactive releases to the atmosphere on a routine basis. Massive amounts of nuclear waste would be generated as a byproduct.

Hydrogen is a non-carbon fuel. Best of all it can be sourced from water an abundant resource. Water is H2O, two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. Separation is an expensive process today, but could become cheap if there was a demand. The biggest disadvantage to hydrogen is his extreme explosiveness. It is downright dangerous to handle.

boeing-787-dreamliner_100416655_mAirplanes will be drastically smaller and slower powered by solar or wind power. Traveling around the world will take a vast amount of time. Tourism will become localized. Trips to faraway places will be a thing of the past.

Unless a viable non-carbon alternative fuel is discovered between now and 2100, society will be forced to live a slower pace and stick closer to home. The goods we enjoy today that come to us over long distances will no longer be available. As an example fresh fruit and vegetables in the winter will be a thing of the past.

Society will be markedly low-tech. Our high tech society will cease to exist. Carbon based chemicals are a necessary part of our computers and high tech toys and tools. Replacements don’t presently exist for those chemicals derived from carbon.

I’m not a scientist or an inventor, but I have a hard time imagining where the cheap, abundant alternative to carbon-based fuels and chemicals will come from. I’m not saying a complete phase out of carbon-based fuels and chemicals can’t be accomplished, but it’ll take a complete reinvention of our society and its expectations.

High Level Bridge at Lethbridge: longest-highest of its kind in the world

July 28, 2011

High Level Railway Bridge-Lethbridge

I’m in Lethbridge, Alberta this week while my wife attends university. My exploring has taken me to the Galt Museum and Archives (www.galtmuseum.com) which concentrates on the history of the area and it is fascinating.

Today I’ll tell you about the longest-highest railway bridge of its kind in the world, the CP Rail High Level Bridge. Completed in 1909 it was built to replace 20 wooden bridges and shortened an existing route from Fort McLeod to Lethbridge. It spans the Oldman River valley. The construction of the bridge was named a National Historic Event in 2005.

Length: 1 mile, 47 feet
Height: 314 feet
Cost in 1909: $1,334,525

Time to complete: 2-years (some delays due to flooding in 1908)

Unique feature: Railway track is nestled between two girder beams instead of running on top of them. This makes it practically impossible for derailed cars to leave the bridge deck.

This bridge is very much in use today and is inspected regularly.

Recommended reading:
Canadian Pacific Railway High Level Bridge at Lethbridge, Johnston, Dr. Alex, Occasional Paper #46 published by Lethbridge Historical Society, 2008

10 Things You Should Know About Human Genetic Engineering

March 18, 2008

dna_overview.pngI just read a novel by Michael Crichton titled, “Next”. Crichton is best known for his techno-thrillers such as “The Andromeda Strain”, “Jurassic Park”, and “Prey”. He is also a medical doctor so quite a few of his books have been based on some kind of medical or scientific research. “Next” is a science-fiction novel set in the near future where human genetic engineering is part of everyday life. The possible ramifications and misuse are addressed via the fictional plot. However, Crichton always bases his books on science. The book was well-researched and based on factual information. He cites his sources in the back and has an afterword outlining his predictions and opinions on the entire subject. I highly recommend it. After reading this book I wanted to know more and thought some basic facts I uncovered would be worth writing about. (Left, above: human DNA structure)

1. What is genetic engineering?
Simply stated, it is the controlled modification of some part of the genes or DNA of a person. In other words, it is now possible for scientists to change human capacities, physical, cognitive, or emotional.

2. What techniques are used?
There are two types genetic engineering, Somatic and Germline. Somatic involves adding genes to cells other than egg or sperm cells. The treatment of diseases caused by defective genes through gene replacement is an example of this technique. These changes are not be passed down to offspring.

Germline engineering consists of changing genes in eggs, sperm, or very early embryos. Such changes are inheritable. This technique could result in perpetual and irreversible changes in humans. For this reason, it is very controversial.

3. What benefits could come from human gene manipulation?
Possible cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Diabetes, MS, and others. Great progress is already being made.

4. What is a “gene patent”?
Genes that have been manipulated into a new form can be patented in some countries. Companies and researchers are allowed to do this in the United States. Many other countries do not recognize these patents.

5. What are “stem cells”?
These are the basic cells of life that have not developed into a particular type of cell yet. For example cells being in the development of a human being from stem cells to heart cells, liver cells, skin cells, etc. The advantage of stem cells is that scientists can “tell” them to develop into whatever type of cell they need for therapy. New brain cells could be created and used to replace damaged ones, at least that is the theory.

6. What is cloning and is it possible to clone humans?
Cloning is reproduction of a species without cells from both sexes. Sheep, frogs, cats, dogs and other animals have been successfully cloned. Human beings are animals therefore it is entirely possible. No one is saying it would be easy, but possible – Yes.

7. What would be the main reason for cloning humans?
So organs could be harvested. Of course this would mean death for the clone.

8. Isn’t it illegal to clone humans?
Yes but not in all countries.

9. How soon could we see humans successfully cloned?
Likely within five years.

10. Do stem cells have to come from human embryos?
Not anymore. Scientists are now able to obtain stem cells from other organs within the body.

Quebec Bridge Collapse – August 29, 1907

September 17, 2007


With the recent Interstate Highway bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Minnesota I remembered another tragic one that occurred here in Canada.

The Quebec Bridge across the St. Lawrence River at Quebec City and Levis, Quebec was constructed from 1904 to its opening on December 3, 1919.  During this time it suffered two tragic collapses with the first one being the worst.

It is the world’s longest cantilever bridge span at 1800 feet (or 549 metres).


Construction had started in 1904 without the final drawings having been checked and signed off by an engineer. After almost four years of construction engineers suddenly realized that actual weight of the bridge was far in excess of its carrying capacity. An emergency meeting was held and the senior engineer agreed and told the construction engineer not add anymore load.  However, the message did not get passed on to the crew at Quebec.  On the afternoon of August 29, 1907 near quitting time, the south arm and part of the central section collapsed into the St. Lawrence River in just 15 seconds.  The height of the collapse was from 150 feet above the river.  At the time 86 workers were on the bridge, 76 were killed and the rest were injured.  The Kahnawake reserve near Montreal suffered the most. Of the victims, 33 were Mohawk steelworkers from the reserve.

A Royal Commission of Inquiry was held and then construction begun on a second bridge. The new design was the same except the cantilever span was more massive in design.  On September 11, 1916 the central span was being raised into position.  It fell into the river killing 13 workers.  This collapse was not engineering related, but rather a construction accident.  Still the builders must have started to wonder if the bridge was jinxed.

Finally construction was completed in August 1919 at a cost of $25 million dollars and 89 bridgeworkers lives.

This disaster spurred the formation of the modern associations of engineers that today licence and administer the certification of professional engineers. The government was getting ready to do this on their own, but the engineers to their credit took the initiative.

Today the bridge is still the world’s longest cantilever bridge and is considered a major engineering feat. On January 24, 1996 the bridge was declared a National Historic Site of Canada.  Also a ceremony was recently held in the Kahnwake reserve to honor the 33 Mohawk casualties of the collapse.

It seems that Theodore Cooper, a renowned bridge builder from New York, who was overseeing the bridge construction made several errors in judgement.  When he reviewed the final drawings he saw that there was a critical design error. He rationalized and told himself – no problem. This avoided the embarassing prospect of having to start construction all over again.  After all his reputation was a stake. By the time this error manifested at the construction site it was too late.  Below is a picture of the bridge when steam locomotives were the primary users.


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