Friday, April 21, 2006

Gas gouging

The American people hate a lot of things, but if there's one thing the people hate unequivocally and across all dividing lines, it's higher gas prices. Except, of course, the refiners, who love it. After all, they're the ones who pushed the price up.

Sounds like another anti-corporate conspiracy theory? Well maybe it is, but the signs are unmistakable - just drive over to your nearest gas station - and there doesn't seem to be any other explanation.

It's that time of year again. Gas prices are going up due to a dramatic weather phenomenon. No, it's not hurricane season yet: I am talking about the Summer. The time when people get out of their houses and drive all over this beautiful land. And, as always, gas prices are steadily rising. The CA average price has hit $3.00 already! And it looks set to go up, higher even than last year's peak at the time of Hurricane Katrina.

So why are they going up? Well, of course, oil prices are rising too. But the price of oil is only half the price of a gallon of gas. The rest is made up of taxes and refining costs. And, of course, we all know that Big Oil reported phenomenal profits in 2005, despite all the 'problems' it faced due to Katrina hitting its refineries on the Gulf Coast, and that ExxonMobil has now reclaimed its spot at the top of the Fortune 500 from Walmart.

A look at the linked graphic reveals that the contribution of refining costs to the total price of a gallon of gas is clearly higher now than it was earlier this year, or in previous summers (barring 2005). The oil companies claim this is because they are forced to produce lots of gas to meet the demand, despite the fact that some of their capacity is still offline after Katrina. The real question, then, is why do the refineries not have enough spare capacity to make up for losses due to natural calamities or other unforeseen events? Here's a fact: no new refineries have been built in the USA in the last 25 years. It's obvious that the oil companies have invested very little or no money in expanding capacity or building new refineries in the face of rising demand. Their strategy has, instead, been to raise gas prices to recover their operating costs and more - which explains the soaring profits. Why must the people pay for the lack of foresight or sound business planning on the part of Big Oil?

Some of the other reasons for high prices being proferred by Big Oil border on the absurd: one, that there is 'instability' in the Middle East (like there isn't always) and two, that there are additional costs due to supply and storage problems associated with ethanol additives.

Big Oil is not solely responsible for the gas prices we are seeing today. The US Government has been very reluctant about enforcing effective measures to decrease gas consumption, and despite the wave of hybrids and high-mileage cars hitting the market, gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks are still very popular. Old habits die hard.

Condemnation of Big Oil and its greedy profit-first policies are, however, coming from all quarters. Members of Congress, including Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), a member of both the Senate Commerce and Energy committees, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) are pointing fingers at the oil companies for gas price gouging. Further, Jason Vines, vice president of communications at DaimlerChrysler, has expressed his indignation at Big Auto still taking the flak for driving America (literally) to oil dependency while Big Oil rakes in the moolah. This inspite of the auto majors having revamped their lineup, now offering many higher-mileage cars equipped with new fuel-saving technologies. I have to agree with him - it does seem like the auto majors are trying hard to produce and sell frugal cars.

But at $3 a gallon (or more), can any car be frugal enough?

Thursday, April 20, 2006


A conversation over breakfast between two international researchers at a recent Biophysical Society meeting:

Biophysicist 1: I don't like these eggs. They are too (fumbling for words).. they have too many lipids.
Biophysicist 2: Yes, yes.. there are many lipids. These lipids are.. having high chain melting temperatures too.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Room at the bottom (but lonely at the top)

I recently read Richard Feynman's celebrated 1960 lecture, 'There's plenty of room at the bottom'.

The title has become something of a modern cliche. It has been used and overused by hundreds of scientists in the introductory sections of research papers and proposals, picked up by science reporters and the popular media and, in typical fashion, amplified manifold. The result is that it now resonates across the world, a clarion call blasting forth from the nanotechnology bandwagon.

And what a bandwagon it is. Since 2001 the US Government alone has furnished over $3 billion in nanotechnology funding as part of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (including the small amount of $40k that was spent very nobly indeed by supporting my education in 2004). Other countries like Japan (a nano champion) have spent over $1 bn as well. I am tempted to invoke the oft-quoted comparison between $1 billion and the GNP of several small African countries, but instead I offer this article that establishes that the total amount spent by the Bush administration on nanotech so far is exactly equal to the amount spent in Iraq - every week.

Is nanotechnology funding burning a discernible hole in John Taxpayer's pocket? Maybe not. But a simple search for the word 'nanotechnology' in scientific papers indexed on ISI's Web of Science returns 3100 hits, all in the last 10 years - roughly a paper every working day! The word nanotechnology's 'Google Hit Index' (a spurious index that casually associates Google hits with popularity/importance, but I quote it nevertheless) now stands at 123 million. An estimated 25,000 researchers are working on nanotechnology-related science and applications worldwide. A lot of money, time and effort is clearly going into the nanotech business. So where are the applications?

The fact remains that the glorious promise of nanotechnology - of far-reaching and revolutionary applications - remains unfulfilled. The best examples of successful applications that can cite, apart from better hard drives, include stronger tennis racquets (thanks to which His Highness Roger Federer whips All American Roddick every time) and 'coatings for easier cleaning glass'. In all fairness it is probably too soon to be looking for applications that will affect our daily lives. As always the hype was too much and probably not justified, but effective in the catalytic effect it had in attracting scientists and entrepreneurs to the field and enabling them with the money and resources required to explore the possibilities.

Getting back to Feynman's lecture - the great thing about it is that he really did anticipate it all. I had imagined that his lecture would loosely hint at advances in miniaturization of machines and devices without mentioning any specifics. On the contrary, his lecture is full of specific ideas and practical suggestions for devices, many of which now exist! His clairvoyance and perspicacity are truly remarkable. His ideas for 'writing small' are exactly what modern lithography techniques are all about; e.g. e-beam lithography and on a smaller scale, dip-pen writing. Modern Scanning Probe Microscopes (STMs and AFMs) do exactly what he suggested they do: see 100 times better than an electron microscope, i.e. with nanometer resolution. Within a few years of the development of the first Integrated Circuit, he envisaged the miniaturization of electronic circuits to the point where they are merely angstroms wide. After many decades of progress, many years of electronics engineers trying, in futility, to figure out what new letter to prefix VLSI with (V for very, E for extremely, S for stupendously or SG for simply ginormously) and still more glib paeans to Moore's law we are almost there: Intel is currently manufacturing devices with a minimum feature size of 500 angstroms and their new EUV technology hopes to achieve 100 angstrom widths by 2009. He even suggests devices that can be ingested as diagnostic or therapeutic tools - an ingestable endoscopic camera is now on the market while implantable biosensors - especially those that can potentially integrate the delivery of a therapeutic drug - are in their infancy. And he makes a lot of smart suggestions about robotic devices.

The lecture is in the classic Feynman style. Feynman had the exceptional ability to expound on complex scientific issues in the easiest layperson's prose, completely jargon-free. The lecture is eminently readable, yet there is more to it than meets the casual glance. There is always something for the knowledgeable reader to pause and ponder about. Indeed it is supposed to have inspired Eric Drexler to research and write his popular and accessible book on nanotechnology. And I'm sure it inspires scientists to come up with new nano applications even today.

There may be plenty of room at the bottom, but at the lofty heights where Feynman's genius resides, it sure must get lonely.