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Wednesday, January 16, 2019


I was planning a biomass career while at Stanford, for I applied for and got a summer job after my junior year with C. Brewer, then the oldest company in Hawaii.  I was placed to stay in a room at the Boys Club in Hilo and I was assigned to a sugar analysis laboratory.  In my front yard was the ballpark the Hilo little league team used.  They made it all the way to Williamsport that Summer of '61.

Upon graduation in 1962, most of my close friends joined the first full-year of the Peace Corps.  They were to get paid $99/month to spend two years in some God-forsaken location, literally, like French Guinea and Cameroon.  My "sacrifice" to toil for the Hutchinson sugar company in Naalehu on the Big Island as a biomass process engineer paid $500/month, and, more importantly, changed my whole life.  I bought my first car, a Triumph TR-3.  I married Pearl, who was a nurse in the next town, Pahala.  We later also spent some time in Kilauea, Kauai, where I met an elderly gentleman who knew my grandfather, leading to The Search for Kenjiro's Grandmothers nearly half a century later.

I learned how difficult it was to grow cane, harvest it and process the crop in a factory.  No one tells you this, but there are swarms of flying cockroaches in this environment.  Then when you burn a canefield, hordes of rats escape.  Hawaii came to be, that is, our ethnic balance, because of sugar.  I probably contributed to the decline of the business in my six years with C. Brewer, for we now have no sugar industry and no C. Brewer.

In 1964 Pearl and I returned to Naalehu, but after a short while felt it was time to try graduate school.  Manager of Hutchinson, Bill Baldwin (right--a decade later we shared the same office working for Senator Spark Matsunaga in DC), somehow talked the upper administration into paying my salary while in school, but only if I went to Louisiana State University, for they had the only sugar program in the world.  I actually got a full fellowship from LSU too, so life was swell.  This eventually led to a PhD in biochemical engineering and a job at the University of Hawaii College of Engineering (UHCOE).

My first project at the UHCOE was as a reservoir engineer for the Hawaii Geothermal Project.  Geothermal energy will be the focus next Wednesday.

However, my next few assignments, all in the 1970's, dealt with biomass and biofuels.  First, I built a raceway (I'm here at an upgraded facility) to grow microalgae, linked to the emission from a small powerplant.  The purpose was two-fold:  grow algae which could be processed into a biofuel and utilize the carbon dioxide to reduce climate warming.  In the mid-1970's very few had any inkling of this potentially serious environmental problem.  There was uneasiness about fluorocarbons affecting the ozone layer and air pollution, but nothing yet about the dangers of carbon dioxide.

A second project was a U.S. Department of Energy grant to determine what was the best biofuel to develop from biomass.  We looked closely at ethanol, for that is where the USDOE was determined to go, as influenced by the Farm Lobby.  We thought that the gasification and catalysis into bio-methanol was the optimal direction, especially if the direct methanol fuel cell could be perfected for transport applications.

Armed with this special piece of information, in the 1980's I directed an effort launched by the Pacific International Center for High Technology Research (PICHTR) to gain funding to build a bio-methanol facility at a sugar factory on Maui, using bagasse as the biomass source.  We secured $25 million, mostly from the Department of Energy, and I returned to the UH to focus on the Blue Revolution.  For a variety of reasons, not one drop of methanol was produced.  We probably till today (and maybe tomorrow) killed future interest in this pathway.

What a shame, for first, that biofuel could be directly combusted in a car engine.  Many racing drivers prefer methanol over other liquid fuels.  The development of the direct methanol fuel cell could serve as the bridge to a hydrogen economy.  If only the world went our way, but the Farm Lobby conned the nation and world.  Four years ago decision-makers finally came to a consensus that ethanol from corn was a terrible idea.

When I wrote my SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Planet Earth a decade ago, the world was using 400 Quads of energy.  Today, this total is over 600 Q.  Here is another rather depressing bit of news:

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that, in 2015, around 12% of world marketed (bought and sold) energy consumption came from renewable sources (biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, and wind).[1] EIA projections suggest that this will increase to 17% by 2040.

In other words, fossil fuels and nuclear fission will continue to provide 83% of our energy usage more than two decades from today.

Biomass has historically supplied a significant share of the world energy consumption, for the period before the Civil war, wood was by far the dominant fuel of choice. That thin gold sliver in the pie chart below?  All the wind, solar, geothermal and other clean energy supplied.  So much hoopla, but so tiny.  Note how large the pie piece is for biomass.

The most promising future biomass is marine algae. We will re-visit this option in Chapter 4 on the Blue Revolution, but to quote a colleague, Jaw Kai Wang, from personal notes (gallons oil / year / acre):

o Corn 18
o Soybean 48
o Sunflower 102
o Palm oil 635
o Marine algae 10,000
What about trees and forests?   Sure, they consume carbon dioxide and release oxygen.  However, keep in mind that they don't suck up any carbon dioxide when there is no sun.  In fact, plants then release carbon dioxide, and worse, they also give off methane, which is 25 times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.  And the part no one really says much:  trees eventually die, and give back the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, plus, depending on environmental conditions, release even more methane, so the net balance to global warming is contributory.  There is that bridge of time you gain when trees are growing, but there is a limit to that lifetime.  Thus, there is some concern about the relative goodness of trees.

More recently, Honua Ola, which wants to burn biomass to generate 21.5 MW on the Big Island, has again run into problems.  There is a NIMBY (not in my back yard) syndrome that is plaguing Hawaii, and and world, too.  We last week saw this in wind power.  But Governor David Ige is supportive and they recently hired as president Warren Lee, former president of HELCO.

There is some ethanol from cellulosic biomass R&D perking along in the U.S. and world, but biofuels from biomass will not become competitive until oil reaches a price far north of $100/barrel.  Research dawdles along on micro direct methanol fuel cells, for portable electronic applications.  I still think that the direct methanol fuel cell is the right path to the future of ground transportation, not batteries.

What about the future of sustainable aviation?  Read my HuffPo.  Our Department of Defense reached out too far during the Obama years, so has pulled back.  The economics were horrible.  Some R&D is continuing.

What about hydrogen?  Read:


The latest seems to be from Singapore.  Only a four passenger Element One using a hydrogen fuel cell.

Okay, so what about microalgae, for if Jaw Kai Wang is right, this should just be a matter of time.  Well, as difficult as the economics are for simple biomass to biofuels, the complexity expands for microorganisms.  Read pages 49-68 of Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Volume 94, October 2018.  This option, too, is awaiting the exponential rise of oil prices.

After I retired, I led another team about a decade ago in a five-year study to evaluate for the Department of Energy how competitive marine algae could be for biofuels production.  After five years of analysis, we chose not to publish, for the cost was prohibitive.  While the more optimistic thought that this technology could be commercialized if oil reached $125/bbl, a couple of respected pessimists thought something over $200/bbl would need to be the target.  Oil prices have been depressed now for nearly seven years.  Last month petroleum was down below $43/barrel, and is today at around $52/barrel (note the right column).

So what about biomass?  It is a green source well-utilized today around the world, especially in undeveloped nations for cooking and such.  If, somehow, progressive minds with good financing can develop an effective direct methanol fuel cell, and, in parallel, an efficient catalyst can be found to gasify methane into methanol, I see this pathway as the bridge to an eventual hydrogen economy for ground transport.  My discussions with Toyota and Honda representatives tell me that they have decided to go directly to hydrogen, which, I think, is premature.

But the overwhelming factor is the price of oil, which is totally unpredictable.  Look at those spikes in the above graph.  Yet, if the Chicago Mercantile Exchange is right, you can look forward to $54.46/barrel December of 2027!


Tuesday, January 15, 2019


Dining at 15 Craigside is usually a party for me.  However, I learn useful information.  About people, of course, and events.  But it is also educational.  For example, how many of you know what quinoa is?

First of all, you will be surprised to learn that it is pronounced "keen-wah," and is packed with a range of amino acid, plus iron, magnesium, vitamin E, potassium and a lot of fiber.  It kind of reminds me of couscous.

The seed comes from South America.  It is not a grain like wheat or rice, but closely related to spinach.  But the flowers produce seeds which need to processed to remove the bitter coating, then used in chips and salads, replacing rice in soups and stuff.

On Sunday night our table wondered:  What exactly are those dwarf corn we see in Chinese stir fry dishes?  They are baby corn (also called, young corn, cornlets and baby sweetcorn) which is simply corn harvested early.  Specific varieties are available for this particular crop.  I avoid them because I feel uncomfortable ingesting the cob.

Next:  Is there an identifiable compound in ginger (rhizomes of Zingiber officinale) that cures or prevents motion sickness, nausea and, even, migraines?  I thought this was mostly psychosomatic.  That is, it works like a placebo or a self-fulfilling prophesy:  if you think it is good for you, it could work.  Mind over reality.  Well, I was wrong

The National Institutes of Health lists ginger as being "possibly effective."  While that "possible" leans in my favor, turns out that in a 2005 study of 675 patients, ginger was superior to a placebo and vitamin B6 in relieving nausea and vomiting during pregnancy.  And there have been more recent studies indicating the same.

But, aha, NIH classifies ginger supplements as "possibly ineffective."  On the other hand, they used supplements in that study.  They should have used the real stuff, the raw ginger.  Also, you should be aware that there could be side effects of ginger:  heartburn, diarrhea and stomach discomfort.

But what exactly is the ingredient in ginger that is doing all this good?  One theory is that ginger inhibits an enzyme called thromboxane synthetase.  But that still doesn't indicated what compound in ginger.

Getting closer, for ginger contains a wide variety of biologically active secondary metabolites.  But, exactly what?  Volatile oils and an oleoresin?  The pungency, perhaps?  Oleoresins can be found in all those spices to the left.  Now here are some real chemicals:
  • sesquiterpene hydrocarbons, primarily zingiberol
  • phenolic phytochemical like gingrols, shogaols and parodols
One specific is that all these phytochemicals relieve symptoms of functional gastrointestinal disorders like dyspepsia, abdominal pain and nausea.  Click on THIS to read a lot more chemistry.

I'm sold.  I keep a reasonable quantity of grated ginger in the freezer for my tsukemono-making.  I'm equipped for nausea.

This next food search is awfully long and disorganized without much of a clear solution or answer.   But that is the state of this knowledge today, getting there, but still somewhat murky. Which artificial sweetener is the safest?  From CNN last year:

How can something as good as sugar be bad for us? 
Actually, it's not, if you keep to the newest dietary guidelines from the US Department of Agriculture: only 10 teaspoons of sugar a day for the average person. Unfortunately, that equals just one 16-ounce bottle of regular soda.
And also unfortunately, the average adult consumes 32 teaspoons of sugar every day.   Couldn't find 32 of them, so used Canada's average, which is 26 teaspoons. Worse, we willingly ingest the wrong kind of sugar.  Fructose, for example, causes insulin resistance, high cholesterol and belly fat accumulation.  Regular sugar is sucrose, which breaks down into fructose and glucose. All sugars should be minimized.  Why? 
  1. addictive
  2. damages your immune system
  3. causes cancer
  4. bad for the liver
  5. insulin resistance,
  6. diabetes
  7. weight gain
  8. premature aging
  9. leads to depression, chronic fatigue, irritability, anxiety and mood swings
  10. increases hyperactivity in children
  11. lowers good HDL cholesterol
So what artificial sugars are safe?
  1. aspartame (Equal and Nutrasweet) is used in just about everything, is 180 times sweeter than sugar and does not cause cancer (this is the most popular and is produced by joining two amino acids, aspartic acid and phynylalanine)
  2. acesulfame-K or ace-K  (Sweet One and Sunett) is 200 times sweeter than sugar and good for baking, but does have an aftertaste
  3. saccharine (Sweet'n Low and Sugar Twin) is 200-700 times sweeter than sugar, dating back to 1879, is now considered by the FDA to be safe, and was removed from the potential carcinogenic list in 2000 (but there are guidelines as to consumption)
  4. sucralose (Splenda) is 600 times sweeter than sugar and is considered safe by the FDA
  5. neotame, a spin-off of aspartane, is 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar, is found in various edible products and lip gloss, and is considered safe by the FDA...and maybe safer than aspartame
  6. advantame is the newest sweetener, 20,0000 times sweeter than sugar, and was approved by the FDA in 2014 (this, aspartame and neotame are chemically similar)
  7. xylitol (from plant fiber) and sorbitol (from corn) are 60%-70% as sweet as traditional sugar, is considered to be generally safe by the FDA...however, they may be poisonous to dogs
  8. steviol glycoside (Stevia in the Raw and Sweetleaf) is 300 times sweeter than sugar, has a GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) designation, but has NOT been yet approved by the FDA, and, while a natural product, is rather complicated
Keep in mind, though, that there can be side effects:
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Vision changes
I get nauseous from aspartame.  Oh, like sugar, they are also addictive, for rats given a choice of cocaine or saccharine chose saccharine.

I almost hate to do this, but Dr. Josh Axe has said DON'T INGEST ANY ARTIFICIAL SUGAR, and specifically identifies aspartame, sucralose, ace-K, saccharin and xylitol/sorbitol as products to be avoided.  Yet, Axe is controversial, does not have a medical degree (he is a chiroprator) and you might remember him for his 2016 book, Eat Dirt.

But here is another list of the worst ways to gain sweetness (#1 being the worst):
  1. SACCHARIN (Sweet'N Low):  screws up your gut microbiome, and that matter of cancer remains a concern.  ACESULFAME K:  glucose intolerance resulting confused hormones and weight the possibility of cancer could return.  ASPARTAME:  anxiety, and brain damage for the rare genetic disorder phylketonuria.
  2. High-Fructose Corn Syrup-90:  visceral adiposity and decreased insulin sensitivity.
  3. Agave Syrup:  from cactus, linked to health issues like liver and kidney disease, high blood pressure and premature aging (tequila is made from agave)
  4. Fruit Juice Concentrate:  has too much fructose.
  5. Sucrose:  the product from processing cane and sugar beets, and the problem has previously been detailed.
This list does not exonerate other artificial sugars and comes from Eat This, Not That.  I can't find anything terribly wrong with this publication, except that it basically operates out of Barbados.  Here is its Wikipedia page.

Okay, then, so what should you do?  According to Harvard Health:  The American Heart Association (AHA) and American Diabetes Association (ADA) have given a cautious nod to the use of artificial sweeteners in place of sugar to combat obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes, all risk factors for heart disease. (You can read the full statement here.)

My advice, consult with your personal physician and develop a sensible diet.  Nothing in life is totally safe.  If you are sufficiently old, like me, it really won't matter much what you do.  But you're different, so good luck.  U.S. News has out its 2019 Best Diets rankings, and the top three are:

Best Diets Overall 
1. Mediterranean Diet 
2. DASH Diet 
3. Flexitarian Diet


Monday, January 14, 2019


However it sounds to you, Koo or Kooch is what golf crowds yell for Matt Kuchar.  Smiles a lot, seems to be a good guy, and won the Sony Open this weekend.

I have never spent so much time with that golf tournament before.  I actually walked the course on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.  My Thursday outing can be found at:


On Friday I was having a Lee's hot dog and Michelob, when Kooch walked right passed me on the 8th hole.  So I quickly finished my meal and followed him.  Here on the ninth hole with Charles Howell and Justin Thomas.  By the end of the day, he was in the lead.

On Day 3, my meal of steak and poke came from Wailua General Store:

Beef was mostly tough, but tasted good.  Here, the iconic coconut trees behind the 16th hole at Waialae:

This juxtaposition was only planted about a decade ago at a cost of $3,500.

On the way home I dropped by Marukai to buy a slab of o-toro (fatty bluefin):

However, I first took a hot bath with a new drink I concocted:  Midori and lemon juice with gin, over ice:

Loved the color.  To the ox-tail soup provided by 15 Craigside, I added the following:

That white disc is mochi.  I had a fabulous sunset meal on my lanai:

I watched the final day of the tournament in the air-conditioned comfort of my apartment.  Kooch bogied three of the first four holes and fell into second place.  However, he more than made that up and won by four strokes

Who is Matt Kuchar?  He is a 40-year old American who lost to Tiger Woods in the semi-finals of the 1996 U.S. Amateur championship and in 1997 was awarded the NCAA golf version of the football Heisman, the Haskins Award, when he played for Georgia Tech.  He turned pro in 2000 and his earnings are now just about up to $45 million.  In 2016 he won the bronze medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.    He has never won a major.  Maybe this year.