ASU expert: World’s main energy source likely to change

September 4, 2008

"We won’t ever run out of oil, just like we never ran out of whales.”

That’s the main message from an expert who has studied change in the world’s primary energy source over time. He understands why gas and oil prices are sky high and explains it’s all just part of the historic cycle needed for a major energy shift. Download Full Image

Gerry Keim, associate dean of the W. P. Carey School of Business MBA Program at Arizona State University, did extensive research on one important change in this vein – when people switched from using whale oil to petroleum as a fuel for artificial light, before we had readily available electricity. Parallels to the current energy situation are very clear.

“When we had to move away from whale oil in the mid-1800s, we had no idea what a substitute would be,” says Keim, “but as demand and tight supply drove prices up, people became more enterprising and found alternatives, and obviously, we never ran out of whales.”

Keim explains there’s a cycle with the primary energy source at any time. For example, in the 1800s, people in the Boston area simply watched from shore to spot whales in the ocean. Then, they would boat out to the right spot and hunt the whales. However, as demand for whale oil grew, the United States saw a huge increase from about 200 whaling ships in the 1840s to about 600 ships in the 1860s. The number of whales close to shore declined, and the price of whale oil more than tripled over those 20 years.

This price hike caused consumers to start cutting back on their whale oil use, and it caused people to start investing in finding alternative energy sources. Rewards were offered in newspapers for anyone who could come up with a way to make lamps that could burn surface petroleum oil. By 1889, people had created lamps that burn petroleum and found a way to drill underground for oil. The number of whaling ships dropped to just 70, and the price of whale oil dramatically fell from $2.55 per gallon down to 75 cents per gallon.

Keim says this is the way things will work now, as we try to find a new primary energy source, as long as prices are allowed to fluctuate. He says, “I’m very confident we’ll develop substitutes for oil and gas on the supply side, and demand will significantly fall, but the government has to resist calls for price ceilings for this to work.”

Keim says, during the oil crisis in the 1970s, people waited in long lines at gas stations because the Nixon Administration used price controls to limit the price of gas. That conflicted with the natural cycle that happens when you have energy shortages and changes.

“If we all paid the real price of using oil, then the transition to other energy sources would happen ever faster,” says Keim. “That means market prices should reflect all costs and benefits of using fossil fuel, including the environmental costs, and some could make a case that there are national security costs as well. If oil prices reflected some of these costs, then some alternative energy sources would be able to compete with petroleum today.”

Keim says in the meantime, we will never run out of oil, as long as it is a privately owned resource. That’s because the owners want to continue profiting. For example, Keim points out that you don’t see any shortage of chickens, which are privately owned, but you do see a shortage of certain types of fish and seafood due to the overfishing in international, public waters. You also never see people letting livestock overgraze their own private land, but it happens on public land.

Keim adds that people will also keep reducing the demand for oil because of the high prices. He says we’ve already seen the number of hybrid cars soar, and Americans used 4 percent fewer gallons of gas in the past six months while we’ve seen sky-high prices. People are using public transportation more often, and they’re better organizing their drives to make the fewest possible stops. These cutbacks in demand are part of the reason that prices have recently fallen.

As for a replacement primary energy source, Keim is betting on solar power, wind power and electricity. Solar and wind power are readily available in some parts of the country, and a grid system can be created to maximize their use in other areas. Electricity already has an existing infrastructure for delivery, so there would be no need to build a network of fueling stations. Domestic supplies of natural gas can also play a big role over the next decade or so.

“I’m confident we’ll have real alternatives in 10 to 15 years,” Keim says. “Smart people and lots of money will be invested as oil prices stay high and we need substitutes. We’ll start using the existing alternatives more efficiently, and we’ll discover new technologies no one’s even dreamed up yet.”

Young biochemist seeks to discover medical breakthrough

September 4, 2008

Conor Cox, a biochemistry major in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, came to ASU for its numerous research opportunities and immense resources.

As for his decision to go into biochemistry, Cox acknowledges his high school biology class. As part of the class, the teacher required all students to participate in an internship. “I interned with a virologist microbiologist,” says Cox. “This piqued my interest in molecular biology. And after completing two semesters at ASU, I knew that I had made the right decision.” Download Full Image

When asked how he came to participate in undergraduate research at ASU, Cox mentioned that he had heard a lecture concerning evolution at a meeting of the ASU Student Affiliates of the American Chemical Society (SAACS). After talking to some professors, he came to find that Neal Woodbury of the Biodesign Institute was doing research in this area. “I jumped right in,” says Cox, “and it has worked well.” Woodbury is now Cox’s advisor.

Matt Greving, a graduate research associate at the Biodesign Institute, is his immediate mentor. “He helps me learn the procedures that I am not familiar with,” says Cox, “and is teaching me how to analyze the data which is being generated by this project.”

At its core, the research Cox is working on involves discovering ways to bind peptides selectively to proteins. Peptides are small chains of amino acids, and proteins are large folded chains of peptides that make up much of our bodies. “Currently, I am working to determine where on a protein a peptide binds and how this binding location changes with mutations.”

To begin this research, Cox selects a peptide which has specific binding characteristics. Then, Greving takes that peptide and alters it randomly to see what mutations optimize it. Then, the mutated and original peptides are bound to a protein. By treating the mix with a few chemicals and enzymes, Cox and Greving wipe out everything but the protein piece bound by the peptide.

“We then use a mass spectroscopy device to discover the weight of the bound portion,” says Cox. “This allows us to discover the biding site of a given peptide on a given protein, and allows us to examine how the mutations, which allow a peptide to bind better, chemically improve that binding.”

Cox and his mentor hope to discover why peptides bind where they do on proteins and how this can be improved by less difficult methods than guess and check. If successful, the research could also allow for a big change in medical diagnostics, drug design or medical treatment regimens. “If we can design a peptide that only binds to one protein, or even one spot on the protein, nearly anything in the body can be targeted by it,” says Cox, “If it can be targeted, it can hopefully be destroyed or changed which will aide is fighting disease, infection and the like.”

“Conor is a talented student with the ability to analyze and explain unexpected results from complex experiments,” says Greving. “His rapid success in research is providing him an opportunity to be a key part of scientific publications related to the work, which will make Conor a very strong candidate for graduate school. I'm sure Conor has a very successful scientific career ahead of him.”

Cox hopes to continue this research throughout his undergraduate career and is looking into Neuro-Biochemistry for graduate school. He is interested because it seems like a field where researchers try to answer the philosophical question “Why are humans the way they are?” in the most accurate and scientific way possible. “I am interested in anything that involves society and the nature of human interaction,” he says.

Moreover, his ambitions and achievements have not gone unnoticed. He was recently awarded the CRC Handbook Award for top (out of state) undergraduate in chemistry and is currently receiving a National Merit Scholarship at ASU. He also has made the CLAS Dean’s list every semester. “I have not yet won any scholarships for research,” he says. “Hopefully next year that will change!”

Cox also enjoys practicing martial arts at ASU and is interested in materials science and media studies, especially copyright and the nature and growth of the internet. “Basically,” he says, “I really like complex things that grow and adapt to the conditions placed on them and manage to work around those conditions to form unique behaviors.”

He has a philosophy that applies both to his work and his personal goals. “In research you think something will work, you test it and you work the kinks out and test it again. If it works go with it. If it fails, try something new,” he says. “That is the way I try to live life.”