Stories tagged Scientific Enterprise

Jul
13
2010

Brown gold!: This is actually the solid byproduct of a manure-to-methane operation. As you can see, it holds no fear for the owner of this bare hand.
Brown gold!: This is actually the solid byproduct of a manure-to-methane operation. As you can see, it holds no fear for the owner of this bare hand.Courtesy kqedquest
We’ve talked about the delights of cow feces before on Science Buzz, but mid-July always puts me in the mind of “brown gold” (coincidentally, the last occasion it came up was exactly four years ago today), and any time there’s talk of turning an animal into a fuel source, I get excited. (Remember that fuel cell that ran on the tears of lab monkeys? Like that.) Why not take another look?

So here you are: another wonderful story of cows trying their best to please us, before they make the ultimate gift of allowing their bodies to be processed into hamburgers and gelatin and cool jackets.

Poop jokes aside (j/k—that’s impossible), it is a pretty interesting story. The smell you detect coming from cattle farms is, of course, largely from the tens of thousands of gallons of poop the cattle produce every day. The decomposing feces release lots of stinky methane. (Or, to be more precise, the methane itself isn’t smelly. The bad smell comes from other chemicals, like methanethiol, produced by poop-eating bacteria along with the methane.)

Aside from being, you know, gross, all of that poop is pretty bad for the environment. The methane is released into the atmosphere, where it traps heat and contributes to global warming (methane is 20 to 50 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas), and the poop itself is spread onto fields as fertilizer. Re-using the poop as fertilizer is mostly a good idea, but not all of it gets absorbed into the soil, and lots of it ends up getting washed away into rivers, lakes, and streams, where it pollutes the water.

Some farms have managed to address all of these problems, and make money while doing it.

Instead of spreading the manure onto fields right away, the farms funnel all the poop into swimming pool-sized holding tanks, where it is mixed around and just sort of stewed for a few weeks. All of the methane gas produced by bacteria as it breaks down the manure is captured in tanks. What’s left is a fluffy, more or less sterile, solid that can be used as bedding for the animals, or mixed in with soil, and a liquid fertilizer that can be spread onto fields.

The methane can then be used on-site to generate electricity, either by burning it in a generator, or using it in a fuel cell. (The methane is broken apart and combined with oxygen from the air to produce electricity, water, and carbon dioxide.) A large farm will produce enough electricity to power itself and several hundred other houses. (The extra electricity is just put back into the power grid and sold to the power company.)

Whether the methane is burned or used in a fuel cell, the process still creates carbon dioxide. However, CO2 isn’t nearly as bad as methane when it comes to trapping heat, and because the original source of the carbon was from plant-based feed, the process can be considered “carbon-neutral.” (Although one might argue that the fossil fuels involved in other steps of the cattle farming process could offset this. But let’s leave that be for now. It’s complicated.)

The downside is that setting up an operation to capture and process manure, and to generate power by burning it is expensive—it took about 2.2 million dollars to do it at the farm covered in the article, with about a third of that coming from grants. Still, the byproducts (electricity, fertilizer, soil/bedding) are profitable enough that the system could pay for itself over the course of a few years.

It’s amazing, eh? Out of a cow’s butt we get soft, clean bedding, liquid fertilizer, and electricity, all without the bad smell. What a world.

Jun
25
2010

Agriculture is widely understood to be one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, which is unfortunate for two reasons: 1) greenhouse gases are a driving force of climate change, and 2) last time I checked, people still need to eat.

Literally Green Skyscrapers: In a near-future world with 9 billion people, land will be even more valuable than it is today.  Researchers have been asking themselves how we are going to feed all those new people...  What if we built high rise greenhouses?
Literally Green Skyscrapers: In a near-future world with 9 billion people, land will be even more valuable than it is today. Researchers have been asking themselves how we are going to feed all those new people... What if we built high rise greenhouses?Courtesy Curbed SF

Specifically, farming is one of the largest contributors of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide – all greenhouse gases – in our atmosphere. The four major sources of these emissions include fossil fuel consumption, fertilizer usage, animal farts and poop (no kidding!), as well as land use change (mainly, deforestation). As serious a problem as climate change is, one of the most important truths for environmentalists to remember is that people have needs that necessarily affect the health of the environment. For example, the world’s population is currently well over six billion people who need roughly 2,000 calories from food each day. That’s a lot of food that we depend upon farmers to raise and grow for us every day! And with predictions of nine billion people occupying the Earth in a mere forty years, our global population’s appetite is growing.

However, a June 2010 study published in Scientific American says that farming’s bad rap is undeserved, and actually modern high-yield crop farming has a net reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Say what??

Here’s how it works: What sustainability-minded scientists from many disciplines strive to do is find ways to limit (better!) or eliminate (best!!) peoples’ negative impact on the environment.

In the 1960s, farmers and researchers began to develop new methods of farming to feed the rapidly expanding population. This has been called the “Green Revolution.” The results of their studies produced modern high-yield farming, which has allowed farmers to produce more food in less space. According to the Stanford researchers, though high-yield farming is possible largely because of fertilizer use – one of the four major sources of greenhouse gas emissions on farms – it prevents land use change in the form of deforestation – another one of the four major sources of greenhouse gas emissions on farms. The key point is that the greenhouse gas emissions caused by fertilizer use is less than the greenhouse gas emissions caused by deforestation, which yields a net reduction. That is, if we had continued with pre-Green Revolution farming techniques, in order to feed today’s population, we’d be using less fertilizer, deforesting more land, and emitting considerably more greenhouse gases than we currently are.

Today, at the Institute on the Environment, the Global Landscapes Initiative continues to focus on seeking ways to secure a healthy land use future for both people and the environment. This includes researching innovative agricultural practices.

Hydroponics: Hydoponics is a method of growing plants without soil.  Weird, but true!  Instead, plants are raised in a mineral water bath.  Could this be the future of farming?
Hydroponics: Hydoponics is a method of growing plants without soil. Weird, but true! Instead, plants are raised in a mineral water bath. Could this be the future of farming?Courtesy pchic

Another Scientific American article has it’s own ideas about how to provide food to our growing population: build vertical farms. These futuristic, skyscraping greenhouses are based upon existing hydroponic greenhouses and could reduce fossil-fuel use while simultaneously recycling city wastewater. Hydroponic greenhouses grow plants without soil! Instead, they use mineral nutrients dissolved in water, allowing plants to be grown just about anywhere… including on the 34th floor. According to the article,

“A one-square-block farm 30 stories high could yield as much food as 2,400 outdoor acres…”

That’s a lot of food. A lot. Really? Is it possible? The paper’s author claims it is and that architects, engineers, designers, and “mainstream organizations” are taking note of his vertical farm concept.

Jun
14
2010

I'm sure there's a lot of jokes I could make about stereotypical tensions between nerds and jocks, but there's science to be had at the World Cup, and I'm never one to back down from an exercise in applied physics.
Vuvuzelas: Fans raise their vuvuzelas in celebration of soccer season
Vuvuzelas: Fans raise their vuvuzelas in celebration of soccer seasonCourtesy Manuguf

If you've been watching any of the matches on TV or have any friends that are, you may have heard about the controversy centered around a popular fan item - the vuvuzela. Vuvuzelas are plastic trumpets used by soccer fans in South Africa to cheer on their team and goad the opponents. When blown, they can achieve decibel levels upwards of close to 130 dB. That's as loud as a loud rock concert or a jet at take off.

It's gotten to the point that referees and coaches want the horns banned, and fans at home are complaining that the noise is drowning out network commentary.

Now for the science. Editors at the German blog Surfpoeten have pointed out that because the horn has a simple acoustic fingerprint (tones at 233, 466, 932, and 1864 Hz), very basic filtering software can remove the vuvuzeula drone from broadcast media (original German link). This may not prevent the players on the field from having to endure the noise, but it could at least help out the estimated 125 million people watching at home (per match).

This same idea may be in use in technology you own. Noise cancelling headphones have been around for a while. They sample ambient audio around you and play an opposing wave to cancel it out. Much like with the vuvuzelas, monotone sounds such as lawnmowers and airplane engines are the easiest to block.

Jun
13
2010

Another Solar Decathlon competition is happening, this time in Europe. The Solar Decathlon Europe 2010 is a competition between 20 college and university student teams to design and build the best solar home. The houses must use readily available products and be easy to transport and assemble.

I would really enjoy designing and living in such a house of my own. Watching teams of experts compete to design innovative, efficient, and sustainable housing is a great place to get ideas.

.

Picking the winner

SDEurope.org has a 17 page PDF download which explains how a maximum 1000 points can be earned in the 10 categories.

On the one hand, the competition will include objective methods for scoring, which will include measurable parameters such as the actual energy consumption of the houses, the capacity for solar energy capture, etc., as well as tasks performed by decathletes which reproduce domestic activities.
In addition, a number of evaluations will be made by a panel of jurors with proven experience who will judge qualities such as: architecture, innovation, sustainability, solar systems, communication and industrialization level.
The final score given to each team will be made up of a balanced combination of both objective and subjective assessments.

Related Solar Decathlon Buzz links

Jun
10
2010

The Guardian: sticking it to The Company Men!
The Guardian: sticking it to The Company Men!Courtesy USAF
Rumor Has It that the Prince of Thieves, Kevin Costner, is now The Bodyguard to the Waterworld we call the Gulf of Mexico, where Shadows Run Black... and so does the oil! He'll be putting The Big Chill on BP's oil spill, cleaning up that Untouchable crude oil with centrifugal machines developed by his company. He's sending a Message in a Bottle to the ocean (but not through The Postman): "I don't hate you for destroying the set of Waterworld! I don't want Revenge!"

But does the machine really work, or is it just a Field of Dreams? In his Testament to congress, Costner argued that it does, and that congress should require oil companies to all buy these machines. Will they? It may depend on a Swing Vote! Only time will tell if this modern-day marine Wyatt Earp can help create A Perfect World with his fancy Tin Cups!

I'm Not Funny, and should maybe Never Write on Buzz Again!

Dances with Wolves!

May
26
2010

Little Dog can handle rough terrain

Remember Big Dog, DARPA's new robotic pack carrying robot?
Now, Little Dog shows off, navigating rough terrain and obstacles.

(Little Dog) methodically moves over obstacles much larger than its leg length and body size—it measures 11.8 by 7.1 inches (30 by 18 centimeters), stands 5.5 inches (14 centimeters) tall and weighs 4.9 pounds (2.2 kilograms). Scientific American

May
16
2010

BP says tube is sucking oil from Gulf well

Sucking oil through a straw: Riser Insertion Tube Tool insertion
Sucking oil through a straw: Riser Insertion Tube Tool insertionCourtesy BP
A 4-inch tube has been inserted into the 21-inch diameter pipe spewing hundreds of thousands of gallons into the Gulf of Mexico per day. Rubber baffles should fill the space between the two pipes. By injecting methanol, it is hoped that hydrates won't freeze and plug up the pipe. This is what happened withing the large containment dome.

Oil and natural gas will hopefully continue to flow to flow up through a 5000 foot long tube to the Discoverer Enterprise drill ship where the oil, water, and gas will be separated. The Enterprise is capable of processing 15,000 barrels of oil per day and storing 139,000 barrels. A support barge will also be deployed with a capacity to store 137,000 barrels of oil.

Update - Monday, May 17 - 1000 barrels a day of the oil spill are being captured on the surface by the drill ship . Any natural gas that comes with is flared off and burned.

"This is just containing the flow, later this week, hopefully before the end of the week, we'll make our next attempt to actually fully stop the flow," BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said on NBC's "Today." Reuters

Sources

May
14
2010

Leaky pipe: I tried counting each particle myself, but didn't get very far.
Leaky pipe: I tried counting each particle myself, but didn't get very far.Courtesy BP
National Public Radio reported this morning about several methods being used to guess how much oil, methane, and other stuff is leaking out of the BP well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

It's interesting to see how various members of the scientific, government, and business community go about trying to guess the real size of the oil spill. NPR worked with a scientist to estimate the size of the leak by literally watching the video from the subs working on the well, and using a computer to estimate the amount of fluid gushing out over time--a technique called PIV. They got a scary big number. The Coast Guard (and BP) have been looking at satellite images of the oil slick. They look at the size of the slick and come up with an esitmate, based on what they know about how oil disperses in water. BP likes this number because it's not super big. Another group did some estimates based purely on the size of the pipe from which the oil is leaking. This number was also big, but there seems to be some scuttlebutt about the actual size of the pipe.

So what does big"" even mean? We mortals have a hard time understanding the scope of numbers after they start to get lots of zeros on them. So we contextualize these numbers. Everyone seems enamored with using the Exxon Valdez disaster as base unit for oil-spill-disasterdyness. Less than Valdez, bad, but good. Bigger than Valdez, bad. A factor of ten worse than Valdez, whoa-momma...we should really...[insert action here].

This story is a great reminder to think critically about the way we think about science in the news.

The oil spill is now X big.

Wait, how did they even come up with that number?

The oil spill has now surpassed a slightly arbitrary point in the past or record.

Um, yes, and.... Is there's a specific number past which this spill will dictate a different action? I'm totally fascinated with all these stories about the scope of the spill, but I do sort of wonder how far beyond, "really freakin' bad" we need to quantify the oil spill. What do you think?

May
13
2010

He's fusing hydrogen isotopes in his brain right now: Such is the power of Kim Jong-Il.
He's fusing hydrogen isotopes in his brain right now: Such is the power of Kim Jong-Il.Courtesy JJ Georges
Check it out: North Korea claims to have produced nuclear fusion. Fusion has been demonstrated in laboratory experiments, and, as I understand it, fusion can be achieved in fission-based nuclear weapons, but scientists have never been able to create it on the right scale to produce lots of cheap, controlled energy (for electrical power generation, which is sort of the ultimate goal.) Except, you know, North Korea now.

(Fusion, by the way, is all about forcing two light atoms to merge together. The atoms have to release some of their components to do this, and when those components go flying off, there's a lot of energy to be had from them. More or less.)

Some folks are pointing out that North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world, and they can barely get their national act together in a lot of other ways, so it seems very unlikely that they've made any huge advancements towards fusion power (which has eluded scientists around the world for decades). But you never know. After all, they claim that the discovery coincided with the birthday of North Korea's "Dear Leader," Kim Jong-Il, and stranger things have happened on that day—according to official biographies, a new star appeared in the sky on the day Jong-Il was born.

la la la

May
11
2010

Assorted rubbish may be pumped into the leaking oil well: To make it more fun.
Assorted rubbish may be pumped into the leaking oil well: To make it more fun.Courtesy obiwanjr
You know, when that oil rig went down and started spilling hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, I thought, “What a downer. My reruns of ‘Yes, Dear’ are going to be interrupted with news footage of crying beavers and stuff for months now.”

But then BP came up with that idea for the containment dome, and I thought, “This is so crazy… it just might work. This could be more entertaining than ‘Yes, Dear.’ If such a thing is possible.”

But, no. The dome failed. Petrochemicals and near-freezing ocean water combined to form crystals in the dome, and it didn’t work. And it was super far underwater, so the failure couldn’t even be set to Benny Hill music or anything. Not entertaining.

I was just resigning myself to the fact that such a horrible accident might not actually be funny, when the jokers at BP let slip that they might have another hilarious trick or two up their sleeves. The dome didn’t work? Let’s try a giant “top hat”!

Yes, BP will be sinking a giant top hat onto the leaking oil pipe. It’s not really a top hat, of course; it’s actually a smaller version of Friday’s giant failure. I’m guessing it’s a sort of a bonus joke. But BP claims that the smaller contraption should have better chance of success, except that even if it does work, it won’t work as well as the dome was supposed to. (The dome was supposed to capture something like 85% of the leaking oil. But it captured 0%, so that’s sort of academic. Or, again, a bonus joke.)

And BP even has another plan, a Plan C, if you will, in the works, in case this one flops. Sort of how they filmed the second and third Matrix movies at the same time. According to my sources, the discussion behind plan C went sort of like this:

“So… what does everyone hate?”
“Nazis.”
“Yes, for sure Nazis. What else?”
“Um… oil spills?”
“Correct! Oil spills.”
“Ooh! We should do one of those!”
“No, people hate them. Plus we already have one. So what does everyone like?”
“Top hats.”
“Top hats, obviously. So we should throw one of them in the mix. But, if someone doesn’t like top hats, what do they probably like?”
“Everybody likes… ball pits?”
“Ball pits! Exactly! Let’s do something like that!”
“And tires! Old tires!”
“Yes, old tires too!”

So, in case the top hat doesn’t work, BP is considering injecting the leaking system with golf balls. And old tires. And then they would cap it off with some cement. Oh, right, and there’s this part too:

“What should we call it?
“A ‘junk shot.’ Duh.”
“Oh, my God. Totes perfect.”

And then, I assume, everybody else in the room had to go wash their ears out after hearing the unfortunate term “junk shot.”

Others have warned that such a “junk shot” could have repercussions beyond the phrase appearing in print: damaging the huge valve system at the base of the well could result in oil leaking out even faster—as much as 12 times the current rate.

Performing a junk shot against the flow of oil and the under the pressure at that depth will be extremely challenging, too. According to an expert from Tulane University, such an operation would have to cope with 2,200 pounds per square inch of upward pressure, which would make pumping golf balls and tires down very tricky.

However it turns out, it’s sure to be a barrel of laughs. Or oil. Thousands and thousands of barrels of spilled oil.

(I don’t have any better ideas, by the way. Except not to have a leaking pipeline a mile underwater. But you know what they say about hindsight.)