As we begin the new year, I’d like to highlight two trends worthy of some eyeballing in 2009. The first offers a beacon of hope for a huge step forward in the evolution of plant automation. The other represents an example of how, in my opinion, the American ideal of hard work and innovation continues to fall in favor of the mindless chasing of dollars and cents with little consideration for long-term expense. So as I reveal my good and bad trends to watch in ‘09, let’s keep our fingers crossed in the hope that useful innovation wins out over senseless quests for financial gain.

THE GOOD: Taking Wireless to the Real World
The year that was saw wireless plant automation go from concept to reality, as WirelessHART technologies received their first action in live application environments.

WirelessHART, which is part of the HART Communication Foundation’s (www.hartcomm.org) HART 7 protocol, is a key element of Emerson Process Management’s line of Smart Wireless technologies, some of which were employed to enable applications in 2008 that would not have been feasible prior to the existence of wireless. These applications were highlighted in October at a press event at the Emerson Global Users Exchange (www.emersonexchange.org) in Washington D.C., when Steve Sonnenberg, president of Emerson Process Management (www.emersonprocess.com), said, “[Wireless] is a technology that will be, and is being, used widely within the process industry,” as he introduced the winners of Emerson’s inaugural Smart Wireless Innovators Awards.

The winning applications included a temperature monitoring installation for chemical-containing railcars, which used wireless to send temperature measurements to the control room on a minute-by-minute basis to ensure facility safety, and a thermal efficiency application at a power-generating unit, which employed wireless technology to enable systems analysts to increase productivity and plant coverage by 10 percent.

In addition, the WirelessHART specification earned some international support in 2008, as it was approved by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) as a Publicly Available Specification (IEC/PAS 62591Ed. 1).

Meanwhile, the ISA100 Committee (www.isa.org/isa100) on Wireless Systems for Automation recently completed a committee ballot on the second draft of the proposed ISA100.11a wireless standard. The final draft of this standard is expected any day now — perhaps even by the time this article reaches your desk.

So in 2009, let’s keep an eye on the ISA100.11a standard to see how it interplays and/or overlaps with the WirelessHART specification. ISA and the HART Communication Foundation have established an information-sharing agreement, which is designed to facilitate interoperability between the ISA100 spec and WirelessHART, but it remains to be seen how this initiative will play out.

THE BAD: Corn-Based Ethanol Goes from Boom to Bust
I must admit, when the concept of generating renewable fuel from corn first began to gain steam in the early 2000s, it seemed to me a win-win. I thought, like many other peripheral observers, that deriving fuel from corn would not only help free us from potentially dangerous and environmentally harmful fossil fuel-based energy, but also provide a new business model for the struggling U.S. farm industry. Little did I know, I was falling victim to a massive marketing campaign by large farm conglomerates thirsty for subsidies and politicians looking to win votes from environmentalists and farmers alike … silly me.

Now, years later, as we hear the news of Iowa ethanol plants filing for bankruptcy[1], it becomes apparent that corn as a fuel source may not have been the most innovative or well-thought-out idea that ever did come to pass. Unfortunately, this conclusion did not come quickly enough or with the impact necessary to prevent the U.S. government from issuing huge payouts to the corn industry — by some estimates upwards of $56 billion from 1995-2006.[2]

So here we are, with a tremendous investment in a renewable fuel source that:

  • has had a negative effect on food supplies in a world where an estimated 923 million people go hungry[3];
  • would require approximately 75 percent of all cultivated land just to cover U.S. petroleum use alone[4]; and
  • has, at best, an unproven environmental advantage over current energy sources, with some reports showing a net-negative effect on carbon dioxide emissions when compared to fossil fuels.[5]

As president-elect Barack Obama takes office, it will be interesting to see what role corn-based ethanol plays in the energy plans of his administration. Will the United States continue to support large subsidies for the corn industry, or is it time to look for a better alternative for our energy future?

— Matt Migliore, Editor
Matt@GrandViewMedia.com

1. “An Ethanol Bailout,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 24, 2008, online.wsj.com/article/SB123008114168231965.html?mod=special_page_campaign2008_mostpop.

2. Environmental Working Group, Farm Subsidy Database, farm.ewg.org/farm/progdetail.php?fips=00000&progcode=corn.

3. “Huger Facts,” Bread for the World, www.bread.org.

4. “Energy at the Crossroads,” Vaclav Smil, Global Science Forum Conference, May 17-19, 2006 www.oecd.org/dataoecd/52/25/36760950.pdf.

5. “Biofuels make climate change worse, scientific study concludes,” The Independent, Feb. 8, 2008, www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/biofuels-make-climate-change-worse-scientific-study-concludes-779811.html