October 2013

October 18th, 2013

"UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A research team including a Penn State chemical engineer was recently awarded a $3.9 million National Science Foundation grant to understand how blue-green algae convert nitrogen into oxygen.

The three-year project, "Designing Nitrogen Fixing Ability in Oxygenic Photosynthetic Cells," includes Costas Maranas, the Donald B. Broughton Professor of Chemical Engineering at Penn State, andWashington University of St. Louis faculty members Himadri Pakrasi, the Myron and Sonya Glassberg/Albert and Blanche Greensfelder Distinguished Professor of Biology; Tae Seok Moon, assistant professor of energy, environmental and chemical engineering; and Fuzhong Zhang, assistant professor of energy, environmental and chemical engineering.

The work will model the nitrogen fixing ability in cyanobacteria which are single cell oxygenic photosynthetic organisms. The objective here is to learn how to "transplant" the nitrogen fixing capability of one such species to another. The hope is that this knowledge will eventually inform how to design nitrogen fixation in plants.

Because plants require nitrogen for growth, nitrogen is widely used in plant fertilizers. Its extensive use, however, may cause soil quality degradation and water source contamination"

Read more from Penn State News

October 16th, 2013


After the Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed $118,300 in fines last week for West Fertilizer and its owner Adair Grain, The Dallas Morning News wanted to see how that fine compared to other OSHA fines. We analyzed the agency’s 56,800 fatality/catastrophe inspections since 2001.

When OSHA found wrongdoing and decided to fine a company, it proposed an average fine of $12,836 before any negotiations or appeals. The agency actually collected an average of $6,010.

Many of the top 25 fines in OSHA’s history are large industrial explosions, usually resulting in multiple deaths, which may be a better comparison to West than the general average. The West explosion, which killed 15 people and injured 300, however, is nowhere close to OSHA’s five largest fines:

1. 2005 BP Texas City explosion, killed 15, injured 170: $84 million in proposed fines

2. 2010 Connecticut power plant explosion, killed six, injured 50: $16.6 million in total proposed fines

3. 1991 IMC Fertilizer/Angus Chemical explosion, killed eight, injured 120: $11.5 million in proposed fines

4. 2008 Imperial Sugar explosion, killed 13, hospitalized 40: $8.8 million in proposed fines

5. 1995 Samsung Guam employee fell from high elevation, killed one: $8.3 million in proposed fines

In fact, OSHA fined West Fertilizer 70 percent of the maximum allowed by law for the number and severity of violations alleged, $118,300 out of a maximum $168,000 fine.

OSHA cited West Fertilizer for 24 serious violations, according to Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who announced the fine. Serious violations, according to OSHA, are workplace hazards that could cause an accident resulting in death or serious physical harm and have a maximum penalty of $7,000 per violation."

Read more from Dallas News

October 14th, 2013


If you read our Sunday story on ammonium nitrate, you know that non-explosive nitrogen fertilizer alternatives are rapidly overtaking its market.

But what about making ammonium nitrate itself safer?

Lawsuits aimed at CF Industries, one of the nation’s two ammonium nitrate fertilizer makers, accuse the company of producing the fertilizer that exploded in West, a claim CF Industries denies.

The West lawsuits say “there were an abundance of alternative designs no longer protected by patent rights, which nullify or reduce the reactive properties of ammonium nitrate.” And they say CF Industries should have been using one.

So is it really possible to alter ammonium nitrate so that it resists exploding?

Attorney Mo Aziz, who is representing victims of West, says it is.

“We’re going to have to spend significant resources to prove that, and I think we’re up to the challenge,” Aziz said.

Attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. (of O.J. Simpson trial fame) made the same claim after Timothy McVeigh blew up Oklahoma City’s federal building, On behalf of victims of the blast, Cochran argued that Dallas-based ICI Explosives USA should have created a safer version of its product.

Cochran based his claim in part on a 1968 patent by an explosives engineer named Samuel Porter. He had created a process to desensitize ammonium nitrate by adding small amounts of another chemical.

After Oklahoma City, the National Research Council looked into the idea at the request of the ATF. The resulting 1998 report concluded that: “Clearly, there is great incentive to identify an additive that, when added in small percentages, could render ammonium nitrate or other energetic chemicals inert to detonation…but no such additive has yet been identified.”

That same year, a federal appeals court upheld a decision to dismiss Cochran’s suit.

More recently, the Pentagon has devoted a lot of time and money to developing such a formula. It also has come up empty-handed.

Read more from Dallas News

October 9th, 2013

"Monsanto understands that agriculture is constantly evolving and is influenced by broad societal trends. Farmers need new tools that allow them to maintain productivity—in the face of climate change, and the challenges of weed and insect resistance to current methods of control—while simultaneously minimizing the impact on the environment. Consumers want healthy and abundant food grown in a responsible way and seek transparency about the way food is produced.

Our people listened to these concerns and in 2012, we expanded our R&D pipeline to include agricultural biologicals, a category of sustainable crop protection solutions made from materials found in nature that can complement or replace agricultural chemical products. Agricultural biologicals (also referred to as biopesticides) are typically topical or seed treatment products.

Agricultural biologicals give growers an additional option for their pest control toolbox and could greatly decrease the use of conventional pesticides when used as a component of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs. Thanks to their highly targeted mode of action, agricultural biologicals are effective on problem pests, while maintaining beneficial insect populations and leaving birds, fish, bees and other wildlife unharmed. Additionally, agricultural biologicals can be effective in very small quantities, and they decompose quickly in the environment."

Read more from Monsantoblog