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Richard Maltzman
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Nature is Diabolical. Let's learn its tricks!

S'not your granparents' corn

No Laughing (Gas) Matter

To Everything Turn, Turn, Turn

Sound Decisions

Viewing Posts by Richard Maltzman

Nature is Diabolical. Let's learn its tricks!

Photo Copyright © 2013 Jim Moore

In this brief post, I hope to do a few things:

  • Teach you a new Scrabble® word
  • Introduce you to the Diabolical Ironclad Beetle
  • Discuss biomimicry

Here we go.  Let’s start off with improving your Scrabble game.  The word is Elytra.  Hey,if you position that word just right (see figure) it can net you 51 points!

OK, now that I've improved your Scrabble game, let's move from etymology to entomology.

So what is “elytra”?  Actually it is the plural of elytron, which sounds like a robot villain but is actually the hardened forewings of certain insects, especially beetles.  Most beetles use them in flight.  However, some beetles have chosen to be earthbound. 

The Diabolical Ironclad Beetle has made that choice eons ago.  Their elytron have fused together to help form a protective shield for this critter.  The protective shield in this case is quite amazing, and it’s only recently that scientists have uncovered how this works.


Biomimicry is the process (art and science) of emulating what nature does and taking advantage of some of the amazing things that nature has evolved.  I have blogged about this in the past, covering, for example, the ‘stickiness’ of the gecko and the new adhesives developed by engineers and scientists at UMass Amherst.  If you haven’t seen that post, or the concept, you really should visit this site:

In the case of the diabolical ironclad beetle, the attribute scientists are after is this level of protection yielded by the beetle’s fused elytron.  How are they connected?  What’s the trick that allows them to withstand, literally, being run over by a car?

In an article from Nature, entitled Toughening Mechanisms of the Elytra of the Diabolical Ironclad Beetle, this is all revealed.  The highlights are as follows:

  • The strength comes from two armor-like adaptations in its exoskeleton (the fused elytra!) which have evolved over millions of years.
  • The structure can take on an applied force of about 150 newtons - a load of at least 39,000 times its body weight - before the exoskeleton begins to fracture
  • The suture (or connection) between the two elytra is a zig-zag, wiggly connection detectable with the new techniques of 3D microscopy

This is very important, because as engineers, project managers, and actually anyone who flies in an airplane, drives a car, or rides a bike, we are interested in how we fasten things to other things (for example, how an engine is attached to a plane wing!).   That last one really always concerns me. 

Blogger's confession: Haven’t you ever been seated near the wing, and looked out in wonder (or fright) at how that heavy engine is connected to the wing?  I admit it.  I have. 

Anyway, if we can emulate this form of ‘suture’, we can redesign connectors, strengthening them, avoiding extra weight, and avoiding sources of corrosion and weakness.

It’s well explained in the video below from Purdue University.

Think about how advances like this – and others from studying nature – can accelerate and improve the deliverables from your projects!

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: October 24, 2020 04:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

S'not your granparents' corn

Categories: agriculture, corn, nitrogen

Do you eat food?  If so, this article may be of interest to you.  As a food eater, you may have some exquisite recipes and know some great gourmet restaurants.  But I’m guessing that unless you are also a chemist or a fan of science, you probably do not know about the Haber-Bosch process.  However, this process has been a huge boost for the production of food.  Its importance is summarized in this Smithsonian article –the one which triggered this blog post:

The discovery of the Haber-Bosch process and its refinements, in which nitrogen is stripped out of the air under high heat and pressure in the presence of a catalyst, has led to three separate Nobel prizes. And they are well deserved. It’s estimated that crop yields more than doubled between 1908 and 2008, with synthetic nitrogen fertilizer responsible for up to half that growth. Some researchers have tied the massive growth in human population in the last seventy years to the increased use of nitrogen fertilizer. Without it, we’d have to farm almost four times as much land or have billions of fewer people in the world.

Have a look at this TED video that explains the process.

As you can see that's a tremendous achievement. And it has won its inventors Nobel prizes.

However, like many outcomes that seem 100% positive, they may have a long-term negative outcome.

In this case, the negative outcome is almost as strikingly negative as the above makes it seem seems strikingly positive.

…making fertilizer via the Haber-Bosch process uses between 1 and 2 percent of the world’s energy, emitting lots of greenhouse gases. And synthetic nitrogen routinely washes off fields into waterways, leading to massive algae blooms that suck up all the oxygen, killing fish and other organisms. So much nitrogen goes into rivers and streams that large dead zones have developed at the mouths of the world’s rivers, including one in the Gulf of Mexico that last year was the size of New Jersey.

In fact, this blog recently covered this issue with a post about algae blooms on Cape Cod.

So what’s the connection to corn?  Well, of course, corn is a food – a major grain.  According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA),

Corn is the primary U.S. feed grain, accounting for more than 95 percent of total feed grain production and use. More than 90 million acres of land are planted to corn, with the majority of the crop grown in the Heartland region. Most of the crop is used as the main energy ingredient in livestock feed

Wouldn’t it be nice if crops (in this case, corn) could produce its OWN nitrogen?

It turns out that there is a type of corn – a very unique type – that does this.

The corn variety Sierra Mixe extends aerial roots (see photo from Howard-Yana Shapiro above).  These roots produce a sweet mucus that nurtures a type of bacteria resident in the mucus. (And thus the "S'not" in our title).

The bacteria, in turn, extracts nitrogen from the air.  This nitrogen serves as fertilizer for the corn.  It’s ingenious!

This breed of corn is grown in the Sierra Mixe region of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, part of the region where corn was first domesticated by Native Americans thousands of years ago.

Now, if this capability can be added to conventional corn – it could reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizer and would make a huge difference in the problems caused by the Haber process reviewed above.

But how?  What are the projects that will get us there?  From the article,

Alan B. Bennett of the University of California, Davis—along with Shapiro and other researchers—began using cutting-edge technology to look into the nitrogen-fixing properties of the phlegmy corn, finding that indeed, bacteria living in the mucus were pulling nitrogen from the air, transmuting it into a form the corn could absorb.


To learn more about the advantages of getting nitrogen out of this food cycle, have a look at this interview with scientist Dr. Mark Sutton.  In it, he has a very interesting analogy of nitrogen as “The Godfather::

Just like climate change, when we talk about the increase of CO2 for nitrogen we are talking about major changes over the last century. With the mass production of nitrogen fertilizers following the 1950s, we have doubled the amount of nitrogen compounds in the world. I would say that climate change is an easy issue. Maybe somebody else will not agree, but I say so because it is a single focal thing: burning things produces carbon dioxide, which leads to climate change. It is complicated to fix, but easy to explain. As for nitrogen, the problem is that it is everywhere and it is doing all sorts of things. It's like the godfather of pollution: you see the results but you don't see the godfather.

In part 2 of this corny series I will provide more detail on the Sierra Mixe corn, and the project to embed this trait in our domestic corn.  I plan to also include an interview with one of the principals involved in the research!  Keep you “ears” tuned to this channel.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: September 26, 2020 11:58 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

No Laughing (Gas) Matter

You can’t see nitrogen.  You can’t taste or smell it, either.  You know it, though – it’s that stuff, which, when combined with oxygen makes nitrous oxide - ‘laughing gas’.  However, in some other forms, nitrogen is no laughing matter.

To quote the US EPA (yes, even this current EPA),

“Nutrient pollution is one of America's most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems, and is caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the air and water.”

Here on Cape Cod, a beautiful peninsula ‘arm’ extending from the Massachusetts mainland, farming is a big industry, alongside to the main industry here, tourism.  Corn, cranberries are grown in quantity here.  The EPA goes on to say:

“Nitrogen and phosphorus are nutrients that are natural parts of aquatic ecosystems. Nitrogen is also the most abundant element in the air we breathe. Nitrogen and phosphorus support the growth of algae and aquatic plants, which provide food and habitat for fish, shellfish and smaller organisms that live in water.

But when too much nitrogen and phosphorus enter the environment - usually from a wide range of human activities - the air and water can become polluted. Nutrient pollution has impacted many streams, rivers, lakes, bays and coastal waters for the past several decades, resulting in serious environmental and human health issues, and impacting the economy.”

So, nitrogen is important, but if we fail to manage it properly, we fail.

A project here on Cape Cod is aimed at stopping that failure. As reported in today’s Cape Cod Times, it is a joint brainchild of the Barnstable Clean Water Coalition, the US EPA, and Mount Holyoke College.  This partnership of stakeholder sponsors is building a bioreactor to act as a collection system for nitrogen-laden sources, such as septic systems, that affect key watershed areas in the Marston Mills area of Cape Cod – in particular, the Marston Mills River.  The system is a maze of ‘beds’ of woodchips, alum, and biochar, which can filter the nutrients from the water – to intercept the nitrogen.

The pilot project has a goal: determine if the bioreactor can assist in the removal of nutrients, including nitrogen, before surface water flows from the bog and into the river (and Cape Cod Bay).

This is particularly important since nitrogen can cause toxic cyanobacteria blooms. 

From the article: “We want to intercept those nutrients before they reach the river,” said Casey Dannhauser, special projects manager for the Clean Water Coalition.

I reached out to Casey, who provided said

"Projects like this wouldn't be possible without our partners. We started meeting weekly just before COVID-19 struck and it would have been really easy to shelve the project until the world was in a better place. Instead they continued to bring their expertise and technical assistance to the virtual table and make the bioreactor a reality despite a global pandemic."

She also provided this video:

It’s “only” a pilot project, but it’s an important step forward in the reduction of nitrogen and the reduction of cyanobacteria. Watch this space for updates and/or a follow-up article about this bold and interesting project!

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: September 07, 2020 12:09 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

To Everything Turn, Turn, Turn

I recently posted about Vineyard Wind – a 100-turbine wind farm to be built off the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.  In that post, I discussed how stakeholders were aligning against the project with their own valid rationale(s) for opposing the construction.  In the post, as I always do, I connect this to project management – secondary risks, stakeholder engagement and the like.

A day or so after I posted, another article came out in the Cape Cod Times which covers a new coalition of stakeholders aligned in favor of the Vineyard Wind project.  The coalition is called New England for Offshore Wind (see their website here).  Their mission, as stated by Susannah Hatch, one of the founders: “We aim to drive governors and legislatures to support regional collaboration and more offshore wind procurements, building the political will to power every home in New England with offshore wind.” 

You can get a quick summary of their view of offshore wind in this rather inspiring video:

From a project management perspective, note how the coalition acknowledges the types of stakeholders (the fishing industry, for example) by bringing them on board (excuse the pun) to share their opinions within the video.  Next, note how they go over the economic benefits as well as the ecological benefits.

The economic benefits are hard to ignore:

The renewable energy industry has been one of the fastest growing job creators in Massachusetts, and Hatch pointed out that offshore wind has the potential to add billions to the economy regionally and tens of thousands of jobs. She cited a recent American Wind Energy Association report that hailed offshore wind as a $100 billion industry waiting in the wings, with the promise of $25 billion in economic output nationally and 83,000 jobs.

With full buildout of the industry, that number could increase to $200 billion in new economic activity and 133,000 jobs, said Hillary Bright, director of special projects for the BlueGreen Alliance. The alliance unites both high-profile environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, with big labor unions,, such as the Communication Workers of America, United Steelworkers and United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, to advocate for the clean energy industry and the jobs that come with those projects.


 Although in the prior article the opponents cover the secondary threats that the turbines and their construction bring to the environment, this coalition talks about the secondary opportunities, such as the reef-effect (the new fish habitats created by the protective rocks placed around the wind farm’s turbines).

And New England (Boston, in particular) is known (properly, I would have to assert!) as one of the best regions in the world for academic excellence.  What's the connection here?  Another example of stakeholder outreach by this coalition: bringing this industry to our shores will solve a big problem - retaining our graduates who often get their high-quality education here and then head off elsewhere.  From the coalition website:

"New England’s greatest strength is the intellectual capital developed by its colleges and universities. Unfortunately, polls show that New England is not always good at retaining graduates after they complete their degrees. We educate the future clean-energy leaders we need to remain competitive in a low-carbon economy. But if the growth of our home-grown industry doesn’t keep pace, our graduates and researchers will need to leave the region in search of opportunities.

New England’s colleges and universities can and will help this industry grow even beyond what existing public policy envisions. Our professors, students, and graduates will help ensure a robust offshore wind industry is built with minimal impact on the marine environment and maximum benefit for our economy and environment. As we educate the leaders of tomorrow, we need to build an industry that will keep our graduates in New England."

Very persuasive stakeholder expansion, there, I would say!

Consider these aspects of stakeholder engagement and secondary risk on your project.  To whom are you reaching out?  What coalitions are you building for your project?  Turn around and find them, turn to them for support, turn to them to find out their reasons for opposition.  Like the blades of the turbines in these projects, Turn, Turn, Turn!

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: August 28, 2020 09:08 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Sound Decisions

Off the shore of southeastern Massachusetts – Cape Cod, really - there are two relatively large islands (large by Massachusetts standards, not Texas standards): Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.  They're in a chunk of the Atlantic Ocean called Nantucket Sound.

A conflict arose there recently, not one between the islands per se, but between Vineyard Wind and the residents of Nantucket.

Cape Cod is no stranger to battles regarding wind power.  You may recall (I’ve blogged about this previously) that Cape Wind – the planned 130-turbine project – died about four years ago.  Read about that adventure here.  There are many lessons for project managers in the rise and fall of that project, particularly in the area of stakeholder identification, engagement, and in the unpredictable interaction between stakeholders which is often completely ignored (as it was with Cape Wind) by project managers.

Have a look at this video by Mike Clayton with important tips on stakeholder engagement.  It’s a few minutes well spent!


Remember: your stakeholders are not like museum exhibits, frozen behind glass.  They are alive, they communicate, they interact with each other in real time, with their own interests in the forefront and your project in the very back corners of their minds.

In this case, the battle is again between some varied stakeholders, aligned against the project – or at least wanting to get their voices heard.

Vineyard Wind is an 84-turbine project based 14 miles southeast of Madaket (on Nantucket - see map) which will “serve about 400,000 homes and eliminate about 1.68 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide emissions each year, the equivalent of taking 325,000 cars off the road”.

You can read about all of the positives of this project on Vineyard Wind’s website project page, and I encourage you to do so.

On the other side are the various stakeholders, with valid concerns, who have aligned against the project, or, who want to be sure that threats to their objectives are responded to in kind.  Read this excellent fair-minded story from Boston University’s WBUR.

Rather than just soldiering forward, Vineyard Wind has been engaging with stakeholders.

This article in the Cape Cod Times has the details.  It starts:

“Vineyard Wind has agreed to pay the town $34.4 million over the next 45 years as financial mitigation for the 84-turbine offshore wind farm it has proposed 14 miles southeast of Madaket that some town officials, preservationists, fishermen and environmentalists see as potentially environmentally and visually devastating.”


The solution is a combination of mitigations:

  • payment to the town of Nantucket of US$34.4 million over 45 years
  • institute a “move back” of its turbines
  • install aircraft-activated lighting
  • repaint the turbine stalks and turbines a color which will blend better into the seascape

The conversations, and the engagement, I’m sure, will continue.

Meanwhile the project appears to be moving forward, based on this story which highlights not only approval but the idea that it may be part of a larger effort to combine projects such as this into a program.  In that article there is a great quote that reinforces the point about stakeholder engagement:

"Public input is a core pillar to the renewable energy program and the expanded cumulative scenario is a direct result of stakeholder feedback received by our agency," Acting BOEM Director Walter Cruickshank said. "This expanded cumulative scenario is intended to better understand future impacts of the offshore wind industry while being responsive to the concerns of other ocean industries."

I’ll be keeping an eye on this story as it evolves… resolves, and perhaps soon, as the turbines revolve.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: August 23, 2020 10:25 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wow! They've got the internet on computers now!

- Homer Simpson



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