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Our World — 27 January 2007

This transcript is provided as a service; there may be some variation between it and the program as broadcast.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World," a global health challenge ... the promise of geothermal power ... and the latest in automotive technology ...

LOWERY: "We do have flex-fuel vehicles that run on E85 ethanol, and then obviously diesel is an important factor, fuel cells, pure electric. So it'll all play out in the marketplace, and my sense is on a global basis, they'll all play a role."

High tech at the auto show, physics questions and answers on our Website of the Week, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Researchers at MIT have completed an analysis of the potential of geothermal energy, and they say that heat from deep underground could meet much of the world's energy needs. The U.S. experts say geothermal energy is a largely untapped and inexhaustible, clean resource. As VOA's David McAlary reports, the researchers are calling for a 15-year program to develop geothermal energy into an economically competitive source of electricity for Americans.

McALARY: Is the answer to our energy needs under our feet?

Earth's molten interior heats up the rocks deep in the surface crust, which in turn heats underground water reservoirs. Steam from this process now creates 10,000 megawatts of power around the world. Nearly one-third of that amount is generated in the United States, the world's biggest producer of geothermal energy.

A panel of experts led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemical engineer Jefferson Tester says this is only a tiny fraction of the country's geothermal potential. He thinks America can do much better.

TESTER: "There is still some technology required to actually achieve it in commercially competitive markets, but the resource itself is very large, has a lot of positive environmental attributes, and could provide a significant amount of electricity for the long term."

McALARY: Current projects take advantage of the most easily obtainable geothermal energy -- locations where natural factors bring hot water and steam near the surface, such as Iceland and California. But the researchers say new technology developed for oil fields can be used to drill kilometers underground and create artificial geothermal reservoirs. Hot rocks could be split and water from nearby wells pumped through them to create the steam to run surface generators.

TESTER: "We're trying to emulate not only the structure of a natural system, but the performance of a natural system in terms of how much fluid we could push through the rock and how much energy we could mine out of the thermal energy that is stored in that rock mass."

McALARY: Tester says geothermal energy is clean, producing none of the carbon emissions or other pollutants blamed for global warming. It would offer a continuous domestic supply of energy not relying on changes in wind or sunlight.

But such systems would use huge amounts of water, which is in short supply in some regions. Furthermore, scientists say, fracturing underground rocks and forcing water through them might create minor earthquakes.

U.S. government support for geothermal and other forms of alternative energy has dropped sharply since the 1980s.

The MIT group calls for a 15-year program of government and private investment to fund research into new geothermal technologies to lessen the risks and make rock drilling more efficient. They estimate the cost at about $1 billion , the price of one clean coal-burning power plant.

TESTER: "If you can do it anywhere in the United States, most likely you can do it anywhere in the world. There would be a lot of benefit from a very serious and much more aggressive international collaboration."

McALARY: Tester says the ultimate goal for the United States should be to generate 100,000 megawatts of geothermal power by 2050, about one-tenth of all the power generated in the country today. David McAlary, VOA News, Washington.

In 2000, the United Nations adopted a set of Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty and hunger, increase education, and improve health care, among other things. Columbia University public health professor Josh Ruxin has been spending the past year in Rwanda, where he went to help reform the country's health system. But as I discovered when we spoke during a visit back to the United States this month, improving public health required changes in other parts of the national ecosystem, starting with agriculture.

RUXIN: "We have a project called the Millennium Villages project, which is across Africa in 10 countries, where we essentially have taken all of these Millennium Development Goals and put in place programs to achieve them. One of the main programs that we have is in the area of agriculture, and we've been working in southern Rwanda for just over a year now and managed, working with the community, to increase their crop production by about 15-fold."

Q: Fifteen fold, meaning 15 times more?

RUXIN: "That's right. So they had been producing about 200 kg. of food per hectare, and these days they're producing about 4.5 metric tons of food per hectare."

Q: That sounds pretty remarkable. Sounds like there must be some expensive technology or exotic techniques involved?

RUXIN: "Surprisingly, the main technology that's involved is three-fold. The first is focusing on line planting. A lot of these farmers had been doing broadcast seed, where they grab a handful of seeds and throw them out into the field and hope that they all grow OK. But for investing a little bit more time and planting the seeds in a line makes a huge difference in the productivity of the seed. The second is the type of seed. In one of the areas where we're working, there's not a whole lot of rainfall. It looks like a desert most of the year. And we introduced a variety of maize seed, which matures in just 70 days. The traditional seed that they had matures in more like 150 days. And the difference was monumental. And the last piece, of course, is fertilizer. So artificial fertilizer was introduced in relatively small quantities, just to make sure that the productivity was high."

Q: So it sounds like it's very cost-effective, but are there cultural barriers to changing these traditional farming practices?

RUXIN: "Well, working with farmers is challenging, but once they see that things work, they really do adopt the measures quite rapidly. One of the things we found when we first introduced, for example, the line planting was that some of the farmers divided their fields. In half the field they did tradtional broadcast seed, and in the other half they line-planted. And at the end of the harvest they compared what happened in the two fields, and I can assure you that all of the farmers in the area are now doing line planting. And the second bit is that we don't just work in agriculture. We work in health, too. So we've resurrected a health center that used to deliver really no health care."

Q: Is it also true that once you have a higher level of prosperity when you have this greater agricultural productivity, that that is itself going to lead to better health care, better health profile?

RUXIN: "It certainly does all move together. One of the requests that we actually are putting on the farmers this year as we scale up to 50,000 farmers is that if you're actually interested in receiving a fertilizer loan, you have to have a national health insurance care. And they're actually excited to see that agriculture and health are going together."

Q: Is this part of what you mean by a holistic approach to HIV/AIDS for example?

RUXIN: "Absolutely, I mean, one of the things that we see in Rwanda [and] other sites where we're not currently working is that there might be great programs delivering very expensive antiretroviral drugs to people who need them, who are dying of AIDS, and yet there's no plan for providing them with the additional nutrition that they need. And we find that if we take on all the issues at once, it makes a huge difference."

In 2000, the United Nations adopted a set of Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty and hunger, increase education, and improve health care, among other things. Columbia University public health professor Josh Ruxin has been spending the past year in Rwanda, where he went to help reform the country's health system. But as I discovered when we spoke during a visit back to the United States this month, improving public health required changes in other parts of the national ecosystem, starting with agriculture.

SKIRBLE: In 2006, Warren Buffet, the world's second wealthiest man, contributed $30 billion of his personal fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which itself has given away 6.6 billion dollars over the past six years to support a broad array of global health initiatives. In 2003 the United States government made a 5-year, $15 billion commitment to toward the President's Emergency Plan for HIV/AIDS Relief. Other large donations have come from wealthy countries and multilateral institutions.

All signs point to continued increases in this funding, says Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow with the private Council on Foreign Relations. But Garrett says the generous donations are raising a serious problem.

GARRETT: "The problem is that this has grown at such a pace that there's never been a moment to reflect in terms of global health leadership, on how are we spending this. And worse yet, a huge percentage — in fact the majority — of that money is earmarked to very specific, narrow disease problems."

SKIRBLE: Garrett says efforts to fight disease must take account of local health care services, if they are even available. She points to a worsening shortage of health care workers in sub-Saharan Africa — a deficit experts put at roughly one million people — due in part to the flight of trained professionals to wealthier countries, where the population is aging and more services are needed.

Garrett says this brain drain is being complicated by the fact that many developing countries lack the basic infrastructure to support a health care system. In many poor countries, hospitals, clinics and laboratories have suffered decades of neglect.

GARRETT: "Bottom line is that unless we develop a much more global view, we are going to see this whole moment of generosity turn into something sour, perhaps even claiming increased mortality."

SKIRBLE: Roger Bate, with the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, says historically poorer countries have not made health care a priority.

BATE: "And we [the wealthier countries] need to accept that, yes we have a role to help these countries, but if they don't want to help themselves, we will not make much of a difference."

SKIRBLE: Pressure from the United Nations, the World Health organizations and wealthy donors has begun to push governments in poor nations to spend more on health, according to Laurie Garrett. But she says it is still the killer diseases — AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis — that dominate the funding picture, even as greater numbers die from maternal problems of childbirth, pediatric, respiratory and intestinal infections and uncontrolled diarrhea.

GARRETT: "With the result that programs that don't have glamour here in the wealthy world, that don't have political constituencies fighting on their behalf are loosing personnel and therefore in some countries we are already seeing the result."

SKIRBLE: Garrett would like to see the World Health Organization take the lead in coordinating the increasingly complex global health care initiatives:

GARRETT: "There's never been a more crucial moment for WHO to flex its muscles and stand up and say, 'We're the only organization that actually represents the health interests of the people of the entire world, and corral all various forces to create joint strategies and execute them in ways that actually results in sustainable health systems."

SKIRBLE: Roger Bate says that while WHO plays a vital role in disseminating critical health information, it has been less successful in setting targets and coordinating aid response.

BATE: "And the most egregious recently was the 3x5 target, having 3 million people being treated for HIV by the end of 2005. Everyone knew that was impossible from the beginning and WHO in trying to coordinate increases in spending for treatment for HIV actually undermined some of the health systems in developing countries."

SKIRBLE: Bate agrees with Garrett that unless drastic changes are made to improve the economies and health care infrastructure of developing countries, simply increasing aid will not improve global health. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

This week it's a website for the curious, a place where thousands of mostly schoolchildren have written in with questions about physics and related areas of science, and where the answers are written so youngsters and other smart and curious people can understand them.

WEISSMAN: "Ask the Van is a website where we try to answer questions that come in from all over the world. All age groups, all different types of topics which we're more or less competent on. We don't answer all the ones that come in. There are just too many that come in, but we try to do as many as we can."

Mike Weissman is a physics professor at the University of Illinois and one of the volunteers who answers questions sent in to Ask the Van. The website is an outgrowth of the university's Physics Van program, which sends undergraduate students out to do science shows in area schools. On Ask the Van, there is a tremendous range of questions.

WEISSMAN: "One's about what would happen if you were traveling at the speed of light, or ideas about some invention that somebody's thinking of. Or practical questions about how hot does somebody have to get some industrial process before the vapor pressure of water is high enough to get things to dry quickly enough. It's just an enormous variety."

In addition to the questions and answers, there's a special note on the reliability of information you find through Internet research. Mike Weissman says that little note — about how not everything online is 100 percent accurate — is actually more important than any of the actual answers.

WEISSMAN: "As I said, if people forgot all the specifics of what we said an only remembered that, I'd feel like the site had done something of value."

Ask your own questions, or check out the answers at Ask the Van at, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC: The Moody Blues — "Question"

You're listening to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President Bush proposed reducing America's dependence on foreign supplies of energy, in part by increasing the supply of alternative fuels. And he spoke about the need to expand the use of clean diesel vehicles and for more research on batteries to improve electric cars.

For a century, the internal combustion engine has dominated motor vehicles. Now, auto makers are on the threshold of a new era in motor vehicle propulsion, and they're previewing their latest technological innovations at the Washington Auto Show, which opened this week.

TRUCKENBRODT: "I think we have to talk in two dimensions here. One is powertrain concepts, and the other one is fuels. And they are really interrelated with each other."

That's Andreas Truckenbrodt, head of DaimlerChrysler's Hybrid Technology Center. The major world automakers are exploring a variety of different technologies to move vehicles, using less fossil fuel — or even none at all — and reducing pollution and CO2 emissions.

One of the stars of this year's auto show was a car that looks fairly ordinary on the outside. It's based on a Ford crossover vehicle called the Edge. But behind the sheet metal, this prototype version combines a hydrogen fuel cell with a plug-in hybrid engine. Its not ready for production yet, but Ford Vice President Sue Cischke says it's an example of an automotive future defined by flexibility

CISCHKE: "And this vehicle offers the ultimate in flexibility. It enables the combination of the best and most appropriate technologies as they evolve. The HySeries name comes from its unique powertrain structure — a hydrogen fuel cell in series with a battery-powered hybrid drive train, coming together with one additional element — plug-in capability."

"Plug-in" refers to the ability to charge the battery from the power grid by just plugging it in to an electric wall socket.

This Ford Edge is just a prototype, but the Auto Show also has a small bus that has been in service in a demonstration project in the American Midwest. The modified Dodge Sprinter is also a plug-in hybrid — though with a small diesel engine rather than a fuel cell.

Since late last year, it's been carrying passengers for the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. DaimlerChrysler spokesman Nick Cappa says they learn a lot by a real-world test of a new kind of drive train with a large, heavy set of lithium ion batteries.

CAPPA: "It's important to see what this type of battery system's going to do in the future because batteries are the most significant challenge for hybrids, future hybrids, plug-in and traditional."

Batteries have been a defining limit for all-electric vehicles. For puttering around a golf course they're fine. But for long distances, even today's best batteries just don't store enough energy to power a vehicle for 600 or 700 kilometers or more before refueling — the distance many conventional cars can go on a tank of gas. That's why you see designs that incorporate fuel cells or internal combustion engines alongside the battery pack.

One of the most distinctive looking new technology vehicles at the Auto Show is the sleek Chevy Volt. As the name suggests, it's an electric powered concept car with a variety of fuel options. Like the rest of the industry, GM vice president Beth Lowery says her company is planning for a future where different technologies will share the road.

LOWERY: "GM, as a global manufacturer, knows that there will be different solutions, depending on where you are in the world, and depending on what the fuel of choice is. So we do have flex-fuel vehicles that run on E85 ethanol, and then obviously diesel is an important factor, fuel cells, pure electric. So it'll all play out in the marketplace, and my sense is on a global basis, they'll all play a role."

The Chevy Volt, like Ford's Edge, isn't ready for production yet. Other technologies, though, are. Diesels were fairly popular in the U.S. market a couple of decades ago, but interest faded because of noise, performance and pollution. The newest diesels are fuel-efficient and perform well, but their success has been hampered by limited availability of low-sulfur fuel. DaimlerChrysler unveiled diesel-powered, heavy-duty pickup trucks to go on sale later this year. The company says they meet 2010 pollution standards three years early.

Diesels also are more readily adaptable to non-petroleum based fuel, such as biodiesel made from food or non-food crops. Gasoline engines can run on blends of ethanol made from corn, sugar cane or other crops.

Automakers in the U.S. market have to meet certain fuel economy standards. The existing standards have been criticized by environmental groups, who say they allow too many gas guzzling vehicles on the road.

The industry doesn't like them either. DaimlerChrysler chairman Dieter Zetsche also rejected higher fuel taxes. Instead, he said --

ZETSCHE: "American policymakers should adopt a new and unique formula, that fits here. A formula that encourages more technologies and more choices."

However, veteran automotive journalist Warren Brown of the Washington Post says that in other countries, taxes on fuel and on powerful cars with large engines have resulted in more fuel-efficient vehicles on the road.

BROWN: "Why do the Europeans have more fuel-efficient vehicles? Why do the Asians have more fuel-efficient vehicles? Is it because they're smarter than we are? No. Not really. You know, first of all gasoline is not cheap [there] because of taxes. If you want to buy a 500 horsepower vehicle instead of a 150 horsepower vehicle, you can buy it, but you're going to pay taxes on it."

Whatever government does, it will be up to the auto industry to produce cleaner running, more fuel-efficient vehicles. Assistant Energy Secretary Alexander Karsner says the key is moving from auto show demonstration vehicles to mass production.

KARSNER: "We don't need hundreds. We don't need thousands. We need millions, millions of cars on the road, available to consumers, so that people have greater fuel choice and vehicle choice. And the cars that people want are efficient, easier on their pocketbook. These should not be options."

Whether it's market forces, government regulations, supply disruptions, fear of climate change or some combination of all these factors, major changes in motor vehicle powerplants are headed our way.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you'd like to get in touch, email us at Or use the postal address -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Rob Sivak edited the program. Eva Nenicka is the technical director. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and Our World.