Stories tagged Scientific Enterprise

Feb
14
2011

We've probably been debating the virtues of urban areas since humans gathered in the first cities thousands of years ago. But one question we probably haven't explored much is how we can prepare our cities for climate change.

Climate and sea level have changed slowly throughout humanity's history, and we've been able to adapt. Until quite recently, humans either didn't build settlements in risky areas, or the ones they built (say on floodplains or near a sea shore) were temporary and easily moved or abandoned.

Now that we face accelerating and more extreme changes in the next 100 years, we also have some very permanent structures (and infrastructures) in the riskiest of places. Over 100 million people live in areas likely to be underwater by 2100. And even landlubbers face the challenges of more frequent extreme weather events--heavier rainfalls, droughts, etc.

St. Paul, MN: I bet there are thousands of ideas brewing in these buildings every day (especially the one on the lower left side).
St. Paul, MN: I bet there are thousands of ideas brewing in these buildings every day (especially the one on the lower left side).Courtesy John Polo

Luckily, engineers are already beginning to plan for these changes as they retrofit and build new buildings and infrastructure. Often, these engineers are ahead of city building codes and have trouble persuading property owners to invest in addressing threats that lie in the future. But isn't it better safe than sorry? Maybe we could build cities so strong that climate change barely bothers us.

And even luckier perhaps is that cities are hotbeds of innovation and creativity. We could see the efforts of these engineers as just another example of urban virtues. More people mean more ideas and more resources devoted to the cause. And in our rapidly changing world, we need that teamwork more than ever.

Feb
08
2011

We finally made it to the lakes above Byrd Glacier, and what a beautiful site and perfect weather! It was a balmy -18F, but very calm winds made for a perfect afternoon for installation of our GPS units. The surface was a very densely packed snow rather than the blue ice we had been accustomed to working with which made the construction process go much more quickly! We did have to be quite careful of hidden crevasses, however. On blue ice, what you see if what you get. The crevasses are easily visible. On the snowpack, it becomes much more difficult to spot since the snow has been windblown and filled in the areas on the surface that would make crevasse detection relatively easy.

Upon our arrival to the deployment location, our mountaineers, Mike and Peter, had to probe around looking for these hidden dangers. Once an area had been determined clear and safe, we proceeded to unload the equipment. From here is was as simple and digging a hole for the equipment box, construction the frame and mounting the solar panels, then completing the install with the electronic hook-ups and testing.

Before we left on our flight yesterday we were able to witness the departure of the fuel tanker. It was quite interesting to see the Swedish ice breaker, Oden, tethered to the tanker to help pull it away from the dock and our into open water. By the time we arrived home, the container ship BBC EMS had taken the place of the tanker at the Ice Pier. The BBC EMS, is the annual resupply vessel, filled with containers carrying all sorts of items, from food to spare parts to new vehicles to chemicals and more.

Operations are conducted 24hrs-a-day for the offload and a lot of departments and work centers have reduced service hours during this time in order to support the effort. Meal times have changed, bars are closed, hiking trails are closed, and people are moving about station constantly.

Jan
24
2011

Cold fusion in Italy?: Suvvia, vedi di non dire sciocchezze!
Cold fusion in Italy?: Suvvia, vedi di non dire sciocchezze!Courtesy NASA
Thems is what we calls "scare quotes" in the title of this post. (And thems in the last sentence is regular quotes.) Grammar is everywhere and nowhere!

Anyway, a couple of Italian researchers claimed last week to have a working cold fusion device. By fusing hydrogen and nickel, they say their machine is producing copper and about 30 times the energy they put into it.

Fusion is the process of mashing two atoms together to get a heavier atom and lots of energy. This process happens all the time... in the extreme heat and pressure of the sun and other stars. Here on Earth, the amount of energy extracted from a fusion reaction wouldn't be worth the energy it'd take to replicate the conditions of a star (to get the fusion going), unless we can figure out how to start a fusion reaction at near-room temperatures. So this new discovery is awesome, right?!

Yeah, well, probably not. It would be awesome, except lots of people have tried to produce cold fusion, even some claimed that they had produced cold fusion, and it has never ever worked out. And, in this case, other scientists reviewing their research say it looks like junk, the Italian scientists can't explain why their reaction works, and while they have demonstrated their device, they won't do so in a closed-loop system (where all the inputs and outputs can be accounted for.)

Nonetheless, they're saying that their fusion device will go into production by the end of this year. The world, I'm sure, will happily eat crow if these guys have solved humanity's energy problems, but until then we remain skeptical.

Nov
12
2010

a paver, or stone tile, representing ocean microbes
a paver, or stone tile, representing ocean microbesCourtesy B. Mayer
Who hasn’t heard about the very great scientific and social problems of global warming and ocean acidification? As microbiologist Louis Pasteur noted more than a century ago, “The very great is accomplished by the very small.” Part of the answer to these very great problems can be accomplished by understanding the very small: ocean microbes, living things that are less than a hundredth of the thickness of a human hair.

Our effort to understand the very small in the ocean has just taken a big step. C-MORE Hale (Hawaiian language for “house,” pronounced hah-lay) was officially dedicated in a ceremony that took place on October 25, 2010. C-MORE, or the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research & Education, is all about studying ocean microbes. Scientists at C-MORE are looking into microorganisms at the genomic, DNA level and all the way up to the biome level where microbes recycle elements in ocean ecosystems.

Headquartered at the University of Hawai`i, C-MORE’s interdisciplinary team includes scientists, engineers and educators from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Oregon State University, University of California – Santa Cruz and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. As a National Science Foundation center, C-MORE is a dynamic “think tank” community of researchers, educators and students from a variety of cultural backgrounds, including native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander.

C-MORE Hale, with stone tiles
C-MORE Hale, with stone tilesCourtesy B. Mayer
C-MORE Hale will be equipped completely and ready for scientists to put on their lab coats and get to work in January 2011. For now, e komo mai! (welcome!) Imagine yourself walking along this sidewalk leading to C-MORE Hale. Stop for a moment to look at the round pavers; they depict ocean microbes first discovered by 19th century zoologists on the worldwide HMS Challenger expedition. Step past these unique designs and take a tour of the brand-new building!

Nov
08
2010

That's actually a tear: The potato just received some horrible news. But it illustrates how full of fluid potatoes are.
That's actually a tear: The potato just received some horrible news. But it illustrates how full of fluid potatoes are.Courtesy ZooFari
Here’s my impression of the future:

“Um, hey. How was lunch? Italian dunkers, eh? Nice. Gotta love the dunkers. Ate those right up, I see. Pretty good sauce too, huh? Got some extra sauce there, actually. Were you going to… can I have that sauce? Yeah? Oh, it’s SO good.”

Yeah, that’s the future for you. Man, is he hungry. Stuff you wouldn’t touch, the future will pound back like Captain Haddock with a bottle of Loch Lomond (before that fiasco in San Theodoros).

But the future is smart, because it realizes that Italian dunker sauce is in short supply, and it’ll take perfectly good extra sauce wherever it can get it.

Are you following the metaphor still? Were you thrown by Captaion Haddock?

Here’s what I’m saying: in the next few decades, we’re going to be super hungry for energy, food, and water, because there will be about 9 billion of us on the planet. So, in addition to coming up with new ways to produce of all of these things, we’re going to have to look for areas where they’re being wasted right now, like all those puddles of Italian Dunker sauce being shoveled into the cafeteria trash bins.

Example: drinking potato chip water.

Potatoes, as it happens, are about 75% water. When we turn them into potato chips, we get rid of all that water—we bake it, dry it, and fry it away. Considering how much we love dried potato products, that’s a lot of water wasted.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop eating potato chips. (NEVER!) Instead, some factories have been installing equipment to reclaim water that would otherwise be vented out of potato processing facilities as steam. One of the factories where the technology is being tried may be able to recapture as much as 3,000 liters of water an hour (about 790 gallons an hour). This water, already clean and pure, can be reused in the factory, or even sent back into the municipal water system.

Although the article doesn’t mention it, I’d be willing to bet that there’s another product being recaptured with the water: energy. Steam, after all, is just water with a whole bunch of heat energy in it. With the right equipment, heat can be extracted from steam, and reused for anything from cooking to powering heating and cooling equipment.

Do you see now? The future, with its peanut butter covered fingers and greasy South Park t-shirt isn’t quite the loser you think it is. It’s using all that Italian Dunker sauce, in ways that you never imagined possible.

Oct
19
2010

WaterWater
WaterWaterCourtesy Leigha Horton
Ever been on a beach (and I’m talking a real beach that rests alongside an ocean, not some piddly lakeshore)…AHEM, as I was saying - ever been on a beach when someone nearby sighs aloud, “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink?”

I have, and have always found the thought astounding. How is it that our world can have so much water and somehow not figure out how to make it drinkable via efficient means, and at the same time saddle up a populace with something as advanced as the iPhone?

And just so you know, over 70% of the Earth is water, and of that 70%, over 96% of it is salt water from our oceans. Salt water that is totally unsuitable for drinking. (Who’s thirsty? MEEEEE!)

Now don’t get me wrong, desalination methods exist in the world – they’re just not very efficient yet, using boatloads of energy for very little final, useable product.

Until now.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, High-Tech Cures for Water Shortages, NanoH20, Inc. is harnessing the power of reverse osmosis using nanoparticles. Turns out these nanoparticles “attract water and reject salts and other particles that can clog other membranes, reducing the energy needed to push water through the membrane.” That’s pretty awesome. California, with its entire west coast on the Pacific Ocean, could stop fighting with Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada over rights to the Colorado River water.

And since NanoH20 is based in southern California, which presently gets most of its drinking water piped in from the dwindling Colorado River, I trust them in taking this whole useable-water-thing seriously.

Oct
11
2010

I don't know: I just assumed that a stupid car would have its tongue hanging out. Like my dog.
I don't know: I just assumed that a stupid car would have its tongue hanging out. Like my dog.Courtesy IFCAR
We talk about alternative fuels and energy use and transportation pretty often on Science Buzz, so when news about the Chevy's upcoming car, the "Volt," and it's 230 mpg efficiency, came out last year, I thought that was pretty neat. (Admittedly, I was also sarcastic about it's price, but whatevs.)

Well, car magazines are finally getting a look at the Volt, and they're finding that its mileage is way less than 230 mpg. Like way, way less. 30 - 40 mpg, maybe. Also, it doesn't work how they said it would. It's more like a plug in hybrid car than an electric car with a gas generator, and once its low-range battery runs down, it's not a very good hybrid. But I guess it's still an intermediate step to more efficient transportation*. Just kind of a disappointing one.

*Almost a third of the energy we use in this country goes to transportation, and the vast majority of that is from non-renewable sources, so improving efficiency in this sector is a big deal.

Oct
07
2010

A bright future: We will all be armed skeletons, sitting on big piles of minerals. That's how I like to see it, anyway.
A bright future: We will all be armed skeletons, sitting on big piles of minerals. That's how I like to see it, anyway.Courtesy bredgur
According to a report in the journal Mineralium Deposita, there’s really no need for people to fight over mineral resources, because there are lots and lots of them left.

The report comes hot on the heals of a political snafu, in which a Chinese fisherman ran afoul of the Japanese coastguard, and China cut off shipments of rare earth metals to Japan, after the fisherman was arrested. Rare earth metals are vital for building electronics and hybrid electric cars, and China pretty much has most of the rare earth metals in town, so China was all, “You want your cars? Give us our fisherman.” Then Japan was like, “Oh, well, actually we can make hybrid cars without your stupid rare earth metals, so whatever.”

And everybody else started smacking their lunch trays on the tables and shouting, “Fight! Fight! Fight!”

But then Japan was like, “Fine. Just take your stupid fisherman. He’s a jerk anyway.” And China was like, “Fine, then!” And everything went back to normal. But it left the world thinking, are we going to have to tussle over stuff like this eventually? Everyone wants minerals, and we might be running out…

Not so, says Lawrence Cathles of Cornell University. We have lots of minerals, more than we could use in thousands of years, even with the whole world living at Western European material standards.

Aw, man. What can we fight about now? I suppose there’s always country and rock ‘n roll. Or we could all split up into Sharks and Jets. We could maybe start randomly accusing each other of cheating at Monopoly, regardless of whether or not we’ve been playing Monopoly.

But… I just can’t get worked up over that stuff. If I can’t throw down over a chunk of copper, or a pocketful of palladium, I don’t know that I even want to fight. Oh well. I might as well just finish reading that article…

So let’s see. The minerals Cathles is talking about come from the ocean floor. At points where the Earth’s crust is pulling apart, molten rock meets ocean water, infusing it with minerals and heating it. The hot seawater rises through the crust, and deposits precipitating minerals on the ocean floor. Lots and lots of copper, uranium, lithium, phosphate, potash, and on and on… all waiting for us in deposits on the ocean floor. A small percentage of the minerals that should be hiding out down there could keep humanity going for “50 centuries or more.”

Sweet! But… wait a second. Didn’t it just say that the minerals are sitting on the bottom of the oceans? Where the tectonic plates are pulling apart from each other, areas one might refer to as “ocean spreading centers.” Sooooo… the minerals are under the middle of the oceans.

Yes! We’re going to have something to fight over after all!

See, I think y’all remember what can happen when you’re trying to get at something on the bottom of the ocean… this sort of thing. And the depths of mid-ocean ridges are nothing to sneeze at. But deep sea oil drilling operations might be a good junior-league analogy for mid-ocean mining—it’s expensive and potentially extremely dangerous, but once we want that resource enough, we’re going to give it a shot. And once we do, that (fortunately!!!) won’t be the end of conflict over the resource. Drilling or mining areas will be disputed, as will environmental liabilities.

I mean, what do I know about it. But when has having enough of something for everybody ever kept people from being upset about it?

I find this to be a very hopeful report. Someday—maybe not soon, but someday—we’ll engage in high-tech, high risk, deepwater mining in international waters. And there will be fighting! Lots of fighting!

Sep
22
2010

NREL's membraine: There's so much science in his head it's projecting colorfully out into the air as a graph.
NREL's membraine: There's so much science in his head it's projecting colorfully out into the air as a graph.Courtesy NREL
You’re worried about the future again, aren’t you? You’re afraid that everything will taste like cardboard, and that most people will be robots, and that the robots will be too cool to hang with you, and that our trips to the bathroom with be confusing and abrasive, and something about bats, and that you will be hot all the time, even in your own homes.

And I wish I could tell you otherwise. But I can’t. I just don’t know enough about the future. Except on that last point—it looks like air conditioning may yet be an option in a necessarily energy efficient future.

Air conditioning can use up a lot of energy. An air conditioning unit typically cools air by blowing it over a coiled metal tube full of a cold refrigerant chemical. The refrigerant absorbs heat from the air in your house, and then it passes through a compressor, which squishes the refrigerant down, making it hot so that it releases heat outside your house. And then the refrigerant expands, and cycles back into the cool tube. (Here’s the explanation with some illustrations.)

Other cooling systems rely on evaporation. So called “swamp coolers” pull hot, dry air from outside, and blow it over water (or through wet fabric pads). The water evaporates to pull heat out of the air, so what is blown into your house is cool, humid air. Swamp coolers are more efficient, but they only work in very dry environments.

And then there’s another way to control your indoor climate: desiccant cooling. A lot of what makes warm air uncomfortable is the amount of moisture it can contain. Normal AC units remove moisture from the air, but they use a lot of energy in doing it. Another way is to use chemicals called desiccants. Desiccants suck up water. The little packs of “silica gel” crystals you might find in a new pair of shoes are full of desiccants. Blowing humid air over desiccants will result in the chemicals sucking the moisture out of the air, making it more comfortable.

Figuring out how to use the desiccants has been a challenge, however; desiccant chemicals can be corrosive to building materials, so they, and any dripping water, need to be contained. With this in mind, US government researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have developed a membrane for desiccant cooling systems that allows the water vapor in humid air to pass through it one way, but does not allow the liquid water removed from the air to pass back.

The researchers claim that this air conditioning process is up to 90% more energy efficient than standard AC. Every so often, the desiccant chemicals need to be “recharged” by heating them up so they release the trapped water (outside), a job that can be done by electric heating elements, or with a solar thermal collector. The University of Minnesota used a desiccant cooling system for their entry into the Solar Decathlon competition. Their system didn’t rely on a membrane—rather, humid air was pumped up through a drum of liquid desiccant—but they did recharge the desiccant using heat from solar thermal panels (which are basically big, flat, black boxes that collect heat from sunlight).

It’s reassuring to know that in the future, even as we’re covered in flesh eating bacteria, and spam advertisements for Spam are being beamed directly into our brains, we’ll at least be able to relax in pleasantly dry, cool air, without worrying too much about the energy we’re using to do it.

Sep
20
2010

A stretched metaphor: Original image altered, of course.
A stretched metaphor: Original image altered, of course.Courtesy Lucas Vieira Moreina
Five months after the deadly accident that spilled five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the Macondo well of the Deepwater oil spill has been declared “dead.”

It’s like when that rabid dog got into your house, and, after a tense struggle, your dad finally pinned its neck under his foot, and, with an Arnold-esque quip like “Bad dog,” sent a 9 mm bullet into the still-thrashing animal’s brain. And then one more, for good measure.

It’s like that, except your house would have to be like a large, deep body of water. And the rabid dog would also have been uncontrollably vomiting flammable poison everywhere. And your dad wouldn’t really have shot it so much as drilled a couple of holes beneath its head, and then pumped it full of cement. And it was your dad’s fault that it started puking like crazy in the first place, because he was really excited to sell more rabid dog vomit to you. (Because who doesn’t love that stuff?)

In any case, the dog/well has been put down with extreme prejudice. Cement has been injected into the oil well through the intersecting relief wells, and the hardened cap has been pressure tested. The well seems to present “no continuing threat to the Gulf of Mexico.”

That’s a good thing, obviously, but unfortunately it’s not the end of this human and environmental tragedy. Before the leaking well was finally capped, about 210 million gallons of oil leaked into the Gulf, some of it floating into slicks on the surface, some of it lurking in thick plumes deep in the Gulf. How the unrecovered oil will affect the Gulf’s ecosystems and its human population remains to be seen, and determining the extent of BP’s financial responsibility to the region’s inhabitants will likely be a lengthy and difficult process.

Still, though: Bad dog. Blam. That’s something, right?