Month: November 2010

Rare Earth Elements: A Critical Component of a Clean Energy Future

As our nation moves towards an increased use of renewable energy technologies, we should plan for the increased demand this will place on rare earth elements. In an effort to prevent the substitution of a dependence on foreign oil for a dependence on foreign REEs, the United States should implement a proactive strategy to diversify our supply of these elements. REEs include elements such as neodymium, lanthanum, lutetium, scandium and yttrium. These elements are critical components of many of the technologies we use today, including superconductors, hybrid and electric vehicles, catalytic converters, compact fluorescent light bulbs, lasers, cell phones and even advanced weapons systems. The elements are not actually rare but are difficult to find in concentrations that are economically extractable. Currently, 97 percent of the rare earth elements produced each year come from China. There are deposits in various parts of the world, but China’s production techniques and costs are among the cheapest, making it economically challenging for other countries to aggressively participate in the market. Furthermore, mining of REEs is a chemical-intensive process and precautions must be taken to prevent environmental contamination. Relative to the United States, regulation in China is more lax, further lowering production costs. China is also home to much of the world’s alternative energy technology production and consumes two-thirds of the REEs it produces for manufacturing. The United States produced REEs domestically until...

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Freeriding on Herd Immunity

Recently, the Republic of Congo reported more than 150 deaths from polio, as well as more than 200 cases of paralysis due to polio. This comes as a shock to members of developed countries in which polio remains just a story of older generations. To the progressively more vaccine-averse generations of the United States, polio is just a non-threatening word – but it means so much more than that. Although polio produces minor symptoms or no symptoms at all in 95 percent of cases, the disease does produce temporary or permanent paralysis in 5 percent of those infected. This is significant when considering that at its height in the United States in 1952, 57,628 cases were reported. The disease also targets children, especially those under five years of age, making it more startling than other diseases with more severe or prevalent symptoms. And yet, in states that allow personal exemptions from the mandatory immunizations for children, there is a growing group of objectors who do not wish to vaccinate their children for polio or other diseases. This group is still small – only 20 states allow personal exemptions, although all states offer medical exemptions. In 2004, only 2.54 percent of children in those 20 states were not immunized. As a result, herd immunity created by overall adherence to immunization requirements still protects these children from disease. Growth of dissention...

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Simple Solutions > More Money

The world is full of endemic, intractable problems that we as a rich developed nation are asked to help solve: poverty, hunger, health problems, inequality, and more. Our efforts to address these problems through aid have had mixed results. Sometimes progress emerges, sometimes the same progress is reversed, and often it seems all our aid money disappears into some void of poor targeting, corruption, and problems that are just too complex to solve. But what if we found out that one of these high-profile and complicated problems could be drastically ameliorated by a simple solution involving an attractively designed package? HIV/AIDS is a major issue for the entire world, but especially for sub-Saharan Africa. The Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS states that in 2008, 67% of HIV infections worldwide were in sub-Saharan Africa. 72% of AIDS-related deaths in the same year were in the area. More chillingly, 91% of new HIV infections among children occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. Many of these new infections were due to mother-baby transmission, something that modern medicine is quite capable of halting. This problem has been a focus of aid and humanitarian initiative for quite some time, and is also represented in the Millennium Development Goals, with seemingly little progress. If ever there were a stubborn problem, HIV/AIDS is it. UNICEF, however, seems to have stumbled upon a breakthrough. The new Mother-Baby Pack...

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Air Pollution: Texas’ Major Export?

The severe air pollution in Beijing became a sensationalized international concern when the dangers of air pollution put the 2008 Olympic Games at risk. The air pollution within China’s capital was so dense that it affected visibility. Athletes worried how the Beijing air pollution would affect their health as well as their performance. The Chinese government had to go to extreme measures to radically reduce pollution in the air in order for the Olympic Games to take place as scheduled. In order to decrease pollution during the Games the government proscribed 90% of the cities cars from driving on the roads. Many factories and companies had to be shut down in order to reduce emissions. The rush to reduce air pollution to safe levels for the Olympic Games was surely an embarrassment for China. The United States could potentially face the same type of embarrassment if states like Texas do not soon begin to take responsibility for air pollution emissions by abiding by the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations. The Environmental Protection Agency recently issued a tailoring rule aimed at regulating greenhouse emissions. This rule will forcemore sources of emissions, such as power plants, refineries and other large industrial plants, to obtain permits in order to exceed the emission limit of 100,000 tons per year. Texas fought back against the EPA to keep their existing plan of “flexible permitting,” stating...

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Is This New Wave of Educational Philanthropy Really Helping Anything?

For as long as there has been a public education system, there have been wealthy families that have ignored it, opting instead for expensive private schools. But lately, wealthy Americans have stopped turning their noses up at public education and are doing something that is pretty remarkable: They’re investing in it. Microsoft founder Bill Gates blazed the trail in 1994 when he launched the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has recently become more aggressive in its efforts to improve education in America. One of their biggest reform attempts was the “small-schools movement.” This aptly named effort looked to break up the nation’s largest high schools into smaller learning communities that would result in a more connected and engaged student body. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am currently enrolled in a class that is working for the Texas High School Project, a public-private partnership that gets a large portion of its funding from the Gates Foundation. As a result, they have also been the foot soldiers of the Gates-led small schools movement here in Texas.) However, despite the fact that Gates spent about $2 billion from 2000 to 2009, this effort has largely been a failure, even according to Gates himself. Nothing changed in the classroom and big failing schools just turned into smaller, equally failing schools. Another example of this trend in misplaced educational philanthropy is...

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