The basic sciences award

October 20, 2008

This year, Professor Zuhair Amr won the distinguished researcher award in the field of basic sciences (biology, geology and environmental sciences).Professor Amr is a biologist who works at the Jordan University of Science and Technology. He has an impressive CV, with a large volume of research on Jordanian fauna. I first mentioned his work when I was stung by a scorpion, and a paper which he co-authored helped me learn more about scorpions in Jordan.

Besides scorpions, Professor Amr has worked on butterflies, hyenas, birds, rodents, jungle cat among things. He has also worked on human health issues, such as the problem of head lice

The study and documentation of biodiversity and habitat characteristics is of vital importance to our environment. Many people sense that this biodiversity is being lost as urbanization, hunting, and pesticides are altering our ecosystem and the diversity it once supported.  This work provides a good base towards better management and conservation of our natural environment, and I believe that the judges made an excellent choice in awarding Professor Amr.


Distinguished research and researchers

October 20, 2008

The ministry of higher education and scientific research has announced the winners of this year’s distinguished research and distinguished researchers awards. While having such awards is an important step in celebrating and rewarding our scientists and researchers, it is unfortunate that none of the media outlets is bothering to explain what the awards are for, specifically. The value of the awards is in publicizing achievements, and not specific names.  Thus, lack of publicity on the achievements diminishes the value.

In this and the next few posts, I will explore some of the achievements of this year’s winners.



October 10, 2008

As I mentioned yesterday, tomorrow I am going to Aswan to attend a workshop. This workshop is related to a project I am involved in titled “Quarryscapes”. The European Union funded Quarryscapes project started in 2005 and is now almost finished. Our meeting in Aswan is the final one of this project.

The project is basically an effort to study and raise awareness about ancient quarries in the eastern Mediterranean area. In this context, we in Jordan studied ancient Bronze aged quarries in the Jafr area, Nabatean quarries in Petra and Roman quarries in Jerash. In the upcoming meeting, I will present some of our work in Jerash.

Most people who are impressed by ancient monuments give little thought to where the stones that were used were brought from. When one thinks about it, it is obvious that the sources of stone are integral components of the archaeological context, and helps to understand more on the story of how the site was built.

The presentation I am planning to present on Jerash includes maps of the most important remaining quarry sites, the geological context, the most interesting features and the threats that these sites face. Unfortunately, there is little awareness about this issue, and for the most part, these sites are unprotected. Jordanian law does not extend protection to these quarries. Protection and proper presentation of these sites will add both depth and texture to the tourists’ experience. Moreover, it is an important component of our heritage that we should strive to bequeath to future generations.

The sites show tool marks, evidence of the techniques used for stone extraction, and unfinished columns. In the case of Jerash, there is a striking landscape as well. Here are some pictures that will help explain what I mean.

See you when I get back.


Upcoming conferences

October 9, 2008

There are a couple of potentially interesting conferences scheduled over the next couple of weeks. Yarmouk University is organizing a symposium on the peaceful use of nuclear energy (October 14-16). I would like to attend, but I am scheduled to go to a meeting in Aswan next week (more on that later). There are a number of questions that I would like to ask, given the chance. The keynote address to by given by Khaled Toukan should be very informative.

The following week has an international congress on biodiversity scheduled in Aqaba (October 20-23). This will probably be very interesting as well. Loss in biodiversity is rarely given enough play in Jordan, despite it being a significant problem.

Anyway, if anybody attends and would like to give me some highlights, they are most welcome.


Conspiracy theories

October 3, 2008

Arabs and Jordanians love conspiracy theories, to the point where it sometimes becomes self destructive. What can science do to explain this?

Today, an article in Science explores why people create mental patterns where none exist in reality. This is done through experiments using volunteers who are asked to describe fuzzy images. When the volunteers were asked to visualize events where they had no control of the situation, they tended to see patterns in the images at higher frequencies than when they visualized situations where they had full control. According to the results of the study, “Participants who lacked control were more likely to perceive a variety of illusory patterns, including seeing images in noise, forming illusory correlations in stock market information, perceiving conspiracies,and developing superstitions”.

Sounds familiar. It seems that perceived loss of control is the reason why we latch on to conspiracy theories. I would like to see studies which explore whether the development of “illusory correlations” is detrimental to people who want to gain more control over the events that surround them. It is a shame that more substantial research in the behavioral sciences in Jordan is not focused on how to overcome the forces that disempower us.

On the other hand, it has been said that “just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t after me”. But even so, we should do a better job in understanding the forces that hold us back.


The Bargish Cave

September 27, 2008

A few years ago, people became interested in a cave in the Koora district south of Irbid. It is natural for local communities to try and encourage tourism to their areas, as tourism can help the local economy. So, in order to characterize this cave, I had a graduate student do her masters thesis on it. It helped that she lived nearby.

We later published the results of her research. Coincidentally, Stefen Kempe, Ahmad Malabeh and others published a paper on the same cave around the same time. Our descriptions of the cave were similar, but interpretations on how it was formed differed.

It turns out that the cave is relatively small, but it is rich in nice cave deposits. Also, there are plenty of bats.

Caves form as the result of water dissolving limestone. This can be a gradual process, or it could by helped along by acidic subsurface waters. Here, there was a discrepancy between the Kempe paper and ours. Whereas we considered the cave to be a result of simple dissolution under normal atmospheric conditions (rainfall is relatively high in that area), Kempe and his colleagues postulated that rising hydrogen sulfide or methane may have caused the formation of the cave. This is based on observations of other, supposedly similar caves, but is inconsistent with the isotopic data presented in our paper.

Kempe and his colleagues place a much older date on the initiation of the cave, with an estimate that it is Miocene in age (5 million years old). Our geochemical modeling suggests that it is probably only 30,000 years old.

My colleague, Rasheed Jaradat did some geophysical surveys of the site. His data shows that there are additional extensions of the cave, but they have suffered from roof collapse. The safety issue is a significant one if the cave is to be developed for tourism. In the meantime, the site also needs to be protected from vandalism.

There are a lot of pretty deposits though. I hope you enjoy these pictures.


On the water loss problem

September 19, 2008

Officials like to deemphasize the importance of “technical losses” in the water distribution system. Based on the statements of Hazim el Naser, I have estimated that about 25 million cubic meters per year are lost annually due to faulty distribution lines (a quarter of a half of 200 million cubic meters pumped for domestic use).

We are sometimes told that the leakage rate in Jordan is comparable to systems in developed countries. Our water situation in Jordan is different, and what can be tolerated in a water-rich country should not be tolerated here.

25 million cubic meters is a lot of water. It is the volume of water pumped from the Azraq basin every year. If we stop pumping from the Azraq basin, we can restore (to the extent that it can be restored) the so-called Azraq oasis reserve, which is supposed to be under international protection as an important wetland site.

Anyway, the excuse for not seriously addressing the leakage problem is the prohibitive cost to replace the water system. Huge numbers are thrown out to discourage people from exploring this option.

But this is misleading. I don’t think that it is necessary to replace the entire system. A serious effort to find where leakage is occurring is needed. Leakage can show up as leaks on the surface, which are easy to identify and fix, and underground leaks that may not show up except maybe as subsidence features on the street. Finding such leaks is more of a challenge.

To find them, the distribution system should be monitored to find out the areas where the volume pumped is significantly less than what is measured by the water meters in homes and businesses. Once such areas are identified, well known geophysical techniques can be used to find areas of low electrical resistivity may indicate leakage. These can then be dug up and replaced. No need for total removal. We are not the first to face or tackle such a problem.

I know that this is easier said then done. It will require detailed and continued monitoring of various areas in addition to the geophysical work. The fact that the task may be tedious is not enough reason not to attempt it. The fact that the minister will probably not get on TV talking about fixing pipes is not a good enough reason either. Moreover, the rusted pipes won’t fix themselves, no matter how much we wish the problem to go away.


Some thoughts on water

September 16, 2008

Jordan Business magazine published a very interesting article on the water situation in Jordan, which Batir Wardam referred to here.  I found the interview with former minister of water and irrigation Dr. Hazim el Naser (a personal friend of mine) interesting because it reflects some of what is going on in terms of long-term planning in the water sector of the country from the viewpoint of an insider.

The question of water loss through the distribution system is an interesting one.  Dr. el Naser insists on calling it “loss” rather than “waste”.  After investing money drilling, finding, treating and pumping water into the system, I think that losing after that is characterized by waste.  I don’t think that it is a point to quibble about.  It is interesting that we are still talking about “administrative loss”, which is a fancy term for vandalism and theft.  El Naser estimates that 75% of the 50% of the water lost due to “administrative” loss.  In real numbers, that is probably about 75 million cubic meters of clean water that are lost due to theft.  This seems to be an ongoing problem that the government is having a difficult time dealing with due to social and political considerations.

The loss in the distribution system is about 25 million cubic meters, which can be alleviated if the distribution system is renovated.  El Naser estimates that it will take billions to renew this network.  Clearly, there is no interest in investing such a large amount of money for marginal savings.  On the other hand, a faulty network will need to be fixed eventually, either as one large project or piecemeal.  This will have to be done.  If not, losses will increase and there will be public safety issues that will fall out.

Much of the discussion during the interview is centered on demand management, and whether agriculture is taking up too much of the available water supply.  I found the distinction between the various types of agriculture very interesting.  It seems that most of the water used in this sector is split between the Jordan Valley and the desert areas in the east and in the south.  El Naser argues that the major waste is in this desert farming, and not in the Jordan Valley, which uses lower quality water and achieves greater economic and social yields.  This is significant, because we are usually led to believe that the water problem in agriculture is due to the farming in the Jordan Valley.  Obviously, the wealthy farm owners in the desert would like this myth to persist.

Here is a shocker, an actual quote:

I don’t think the ministry of planning is doing any serious planning in the water sector. In fact, I am not sure it is actually convinced of the water sector’s importance, with water ranking low on its priority list”.

 Another quote I would take issue with

“The water issue in Jordan is a multi-dimensional problem that spans across various sectors, where the non-water element is actually the dominant factor. In my opinion, the role of the ministry of water in resolving the water problems in Jordan is no more than 50%. Planning, education, environment and culture are just some of the many non-water elements that come into play. The ministry of water will tend to focus merely on demand and supply, but the issue of water in Jordan is a multi-faceted one that requires various government entities to work together.”

I feel this is a cop out.  The job of the ministry of water is to supply needed water.  An earlier quote was that the available water is 800 million cubic meters and the demand is 1200 cubic meters.  This means that we are already living on 2/3 of the water we need, and don’t need awareness programs to point out that fact.

I encourage you to read the entire article.  I will have more unconventional thoughts in a subsequent post.


Oil shale (part III)

September 7, 2008

Part I (geology and reserves)

Part II (direct combustion)

Perhaps the most economic use of the oil shale is to use retorting extraction technologies to remove the organic kerogen from the rock.  This can be potentially done in two ways.  The first is to extract and crush the rock before retorting in special kilns.  The second is to extract the oil by heating the rock in place, the so-called in-situ extraction method.

I mentioned in the previous post (and in the subsequent reply to a comment), that economic potential for direct burning of shale is limited due to the greater value of liquid hydrocarbons and due to the competition with Egyptian natural gas, which makes electricity generation from shale too expensive.

Clearly, the technology exists to extract oil from the oil shale, and in the mean time extract substantial amounts of sulfur contained in it.  So, why are we not doing it?

Jaber and co-workers have an interesting economic analysis in a recent (2008) paper. The manuscript seems to have been accepted somewhat earlier, because the analysis is based on a price of USD 63 per barrel, which is substantially lower than the current price of USD 107 per barrel.  This increase, plus the long-term prospect of diminishing global petroleum reserves will increase the attractiveness of oil shale retorting in the long-run.

Even now, investors are interested.  The government has begun talks with various energy companies, although it has placed a moratorium on proposals in order to explore for uranium first.  Some reports suggest that the government is more interested in in situ extraction.

Aside from the economics, certain environmental issues need to be resolved.  Large scale surface mining and mineral processing will potentially need a lot of fresh water, which is not readily available.  Moreover, landscape disruption is an obvious by-product of strip mining.  The Jordan Phosphate Mines company has not yet done anything to rehabilitate the Russeifa mines between Amman and Zerqa, despite these abandoned mines being in a high population area.  One can only imagine that mines in the south will be left as is after the ore is removed.  I would hesitate to endorse any deal that does not ensure reasonable management of the mining sites after the mines close.

In situ extraction is an attractive method that will keep the landscape in tact.  The technology to do this is still unproven, as are it’s economics.  Moreover, potential groundwater contamination due to mobilization of hydrocarbons and heavy metals is also a concern.

In the final analysis, I believe that there is no rush for this.  The oil shale is not going anywhere, energy costs will increase the value of shale as time goes by, increasing the economic viability of any projects and the bargaining power of the government to ensure the best environmental management of these endeavors.  Who says we need to use all of the country’s resources in one generation?  Don’t our children deserve that we leave them something?


Oil shale (part II)

September 5, 2008

In the previous post on oil shale, something about the geology and nature of oil share in Jordan was given. In this post, more on the options of how to utilize this material will be presented. Essentially, these options are either direct combustion for electrical generation or retorting to extract the oil from the rock.

From a technical point of view, the simplest approach is to burn the shale to produce heat, and then electricity. A number of experiments have been made on this, and have been discussed in the Bseiso report I referred to in the first post. All of the tests indicated economic feasibility of direct burning. Essentially, the idea is to crush the oil shale to sand-sized fragments and to ignite the kerogen in the rock. One concern about this is the high level of sulfur in the oil shale, potentially causing air pollution problems. Fortunately, the limestone in which the kerogen is present decomposes in heat to lime, which can react with the sulfur dioxide produced by burning the shale to produce calcium sulfate. The sulfur issue needs to be considered during any designing of a shale burning plant.

Another issue is what to do with all of the residue (fly ash) that will result from burning oil shale. Depending on the scale of use, large volumes of lime-rich ash have the potential of polluting aquifers (by reaching extremely high pH values, possibly leaching heavy metals into the ground water) as well as being sources of dust that may impact air quality and ecosystem stability in the areas where it is kept.

Some studies have suggested that the fly ash would be suitable raw material for cement production. Preliminary tests have suggested that cement produced with this material does not shrink in a predictable pattern, which may be a problem. However, other properties such as strength and thermal conductivity show more promising results. Further experimentation may lead to a better product.

Other potential uses that have been investigated include the use of the ash is soil stabilization, the production of zeolites for water treatment (we have natural zeolites that can be used in a similar way) and improving asphalt mixtures (which is something to be welcomed).

In conclusion, the use of oil shale for direct combustion is economically feasible, although it may no be the optimal way to use the resource. Comparative studies of oil extraction versus direct combustion show that the former is a more lucrative option (see the table on page 37 here. The numbers are outdated but the variations are still similar). Environmental problems of direct burning include the large amount of waste produced (fly ash) and the potential problem of sulfur, which can be managed provided there is good engineering and monitoring.

I will discuss retorting in a future post (In Sha’ Allah).