Courtesy Courtesy ksoScientists from the Berkeley Lab have developed a way to generate electricity from viruses! Their method is based on the piezoelectric properties of the virus, M13 bacteriophage. Piezoelectricity is the charge that accumulates in certain solids when a mechanical stress is applied to them (squeezing, pressing, pushing, tapping, etc.) The scientists realized that the M13 virus would be a great candidate for their research because it replicates extremely rapidly (no supply problems here), it’s harmless to humans (always a good thing), and it assembles itself into well-organized films (think chopsticks in a box). It was these films that they layered and sandwiched between gold-plated electrodes to create their nearly paper-thin generator. When this postage stamp-sized generator was tapped, it created enough electricity to flash a “1” on a liquid crystal screen.
The potential here is that someday we could put these super-thin generators in any number of places, and harness electricity by doing normal, everyday tasks like walking or closing doors. I propose putting them in the shoes of marathon runners and then have cell phone charging stations along the route. Nothing is more maddening than waiting all day in the rain to get an action shot of your runner, only to find that your battery has since died by the time your slow-poke reaches the finish line. There’s always next year.
Courtesy Public domainImagine you’ve been transported back in time to the Late Jurassic and you’re sitting on a gently sloping hillside watching a large herd of the gigantic sauropod dinosaurs chowing down on tons of vegetation in the valley below. What’s the one thing you might need to worry about? The herd of sauropods suddenly stampeding the hillside? A truck-sized carnivore eyeing you from the shadows? Tiny burrowing mammals gnawing at your ankles? While all these scenarios would have been possible, the most likely worry would probably be (if you’re downwind anyway) getting inundated by a warm blast of dinosaur farts.
That’s right, dinosaur flatulence - tons of it - wafting over you like a huge, stinky old blanket. Ewww.
Researchers from Liverpool John Moore's University, the University of London, and the University of Glasgow have calculated that herds of sauropods, those tiny-headed ,long-necked, long-tailed herbivorous dinosaurs that populated the Jurassic landscape about 150 million years ago, would have been eating a lot of vegetation during their lifetimes and in the process releasing a tremendous amount of methane gas from their guts and into the Earth’s atmosphere. That's a lot of cheese-cutting.
In fact, writing in the journal Current Biology, Dr. David Wilkinson and his colleagues claimed that the amount of emission of methane just from the herbivorous dinosaur gassers would have been about the same amount being emitted from all sources today - 500-520 million tons each year. Methane is a greenhouse gas that can absorb the sun’s infrared energy, and heat up the atmosphere. The producers of methane today range from ruminant species such as cows, goats, and sheep, and from human activities such as natural gas drilling, but the effects on the environment could be similar – a warming of the atmosphere. Back in the Mesozoic, average temperatures were about 18 °F higher than today. Wilkinson and his colleagues suggest the dinosaur backfires could have been a big factor in the warming of the prehistoric environment, but admit it wouldn't have been the only source of the gas back then.
"There were other sources of methane in the Mesozoic so total methane level would probably have been much higher than now," Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson’s research interest lays not so much in the sauropods themselves but in the microscopic bacteria that once lined their guts. It was these microbes that converted the vegetable matter into energy and waste, including methane. Could that vast SBD Mesozoic methane source, as the researchers suggest, have been a big contributor to the warmer temperatures back then? Possibly. Or maybe it's just a lot of hot air.
BBC Nature News
Courtesy CECAR - Climate and Ecosystems Change Adaptation R (adapted by Mark Ryan)Several months back there was a lot of hoopla revolving around the so-called "Climategate" scandal. Climate scientists' emails were hacked, posted online and taken out of context as they were disseminated around the internet and through the news channels. Some researchers were charged with manipulating climate data to bolster their own point of view, and indignant investigations were launched against them. As the story fermented in the media, the blogosphere, and political circles, it grew into an over-inflated bag of hot-air. But, eventually, the truth prevailed, and those accused were exonerated by the facts. Michael Mann, a climate change researcher at Pennsylvania State University, was one of key figures in the "scandal", and has written (both here and in a new book) about his experience dealing with the kind of smear campaign that was hurled his way. He terms it the "scientization" of politics. It's involves some of same anti-science tactics used by the tobacco industry and creationists: mainly to cast doubt on the facts, and fabricate controversy where there is none.
The future is now for some lucky Americans. The rest of us will have to wait and hope that someday soon our recycling trucks might also run on “trash gas.”
“Trash gas” is natural gas that is harvested from landfills where it is produced by the decomposition (breaking down) of organic waste. One future-thinking company, Waste Management Inc, now has over 1,000 trucks fueled by methane (a natural gas) that they collect from one of their very own California landfills.
Courtesy Tom Raftery
Natural gas can be used in vehicles in either a compressed or liquefied state. Waste Management’s trash gas trucks are about 50/50 compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG). You should check out those links, but to give you the gist of the idea here, imagine a balloon filled with natural gas. CGN is like squeezing that balloon. LGN is like cooling that balloon until the molecules inside condense into liquid like steam on a bathroom wall.
Why is this a BIG idea? CNG and LNG emit less carbon and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere than diesel (the conventional fuel used by most large trucks). As you’ve probably heard, carbon dioxide is among the greenhouse gases contributing to global climate change. Meanwhile, nitrogen oxides contribute to smog, which is bad for your health besides being unsightly. Less is definitely more when it comes to carbon and nitrogen oxides.
As for more, Waste Management’s single currently operating LGN-generating landfill creates 13,000 gallons of LGN each day, which is enough to fuel 1,000 trucks. According to the primary source of this blog post, Waste Management has another landfill-turned-fuel station up for approval. With an additional 299 landfills and about 21,000 trucks, it might not be that long before a Waste Management “trash gas” truck comes rolling along your street.
Ten abandoned mining pits in Minnesota's Iron Range could have new life as pumped-storage hydroelectricity plants, according to a University of Minnesota,* Great River Energy, and Minnesota Power study.
[Hey, now: did you click on the hyperlink above? I don't put hyperlinks in posts for my own amusement, you know. They're for your viewing pleasure and learning enjoyment! Seriously though, click on them for great explanations, photos, diagrams, graphs, and more. You won't be disappointed.]
Courtesy Steve Fareham
Pumped-storage hydroelectric technology sounds like something from a science fiction movie, but it's really just a neat combination of water and wind energy technology. What makes pumped-storage hydroelectric projects sexy is that they make it possible to store excess energy generated by wind turbines on windy days. This stored energy can then be used during the inevitable calm days -- addressing one of the biggest issues for today's wind energy industry!
How does it work?
It's basic physics, my friends: building potential energy and releasing kinetic energy. Specifically, excess energy generated by wind turbines "is used to pump water from a low-lying reservoir to a higher elevation pool" within the mine pit. This builds the potential energy of the water. Then, when that energy is demanded, "water from the upper pool is released generating hydroelectricity and refilling the lower pool." This releases kinetic energy, which can be turned into electricity.
How effective is it?
Researchers estimated that a pumped-storage hydroelectric facility built in Virginia, MN could output the same electricity as a "modest-sized" generator burning natural gas. However, at a cost of $120 million, the pumped-hydro facility would be more expensive than a comparable natural gas generator.
There are 40 U.S. locations currently employing pumped-storage hydroelectricity technology, but there are no definite plans for any such projects in Minnesota -- yet.
Read the Star Tribune's coverage of this story here.
*Including scientists from UMD's Natural Resources Research Institute, St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, and Humphrey School of Public Affairs; and funded largely by the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment.
You are Cordially Invited
Publication Party, Public Reading, and Book Signing Event
FOOL ME TWICE: Fighting the Assault on Science in America
SHAWN LAWRENCE OTTO
Introduction by Don Shelby
Emcee Jim Lenfestey
"A gripping analysis of America's anti-science crisis."
—Starred Kirkus Review
“In this incredible book, Otto explores the devaluation of science in America.”
—Starred Publishers Weekly Review
Courtesy Shawn Lawerence Otto
Tuesday October 18, 2011 at 7PM
Target Performance Hall, Open Book
1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis
(click here for directions and free parking)
This event is free and open to the public
the Loft Literary Center
the Science Museum of Minnesota
Beer, wine and light refreshments served
Books for sale at the event
Free book by drawing. To qualify: A) post about the event on Facebook B) tweet at the event with hashtag #FoolMeTwice and mention @ShawnOtto
There’s been some buzz about the relationship between clouds and climate recently, prompting Andrew Revkin of the New York Times’ Dot Earth blog to get his panties in a twist about the “…over-interpretation of a couple of [scientific] papers…”
What gives? I wanted to know too, so I’ve done a bit – ok, a lot – of research and this is what I can tell you: The heart of the discussion is not whether there is a cloud-climate connection (that’s clear), but rather over what that relationship behaves like. There are at least three possible theories, but before we get to those, let’s review some important background concepts.
Gimme the Basics First
First, scientists think of air as units of volume called air masses. Each air mass is identified by its temperature and moisture content. Clouds are basically wet air masses that form when rising air masses expand and cool, causing the moisture in the air to condense. You can see the process in action yourself just by exhaling outside on a cool morning. The Center for Multiscale Modeling of Atmospheric Processes has a webpage to answer your other questions about clouds.
Earth’s Energy Budget
Energy from the Sun is essential for life on Earth. Let’s pretend the Earth has an “energy budget” where solar energy is like money, absorption is like a deposit, reflection is like a transfer, and radiation is like a withdrawal. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’ll work for starters: Most of the incoming solar energy (money) is absorbed by (deposited into) the ocean and earth surface, but some is absorbed or reflected (transferred) by the atmosphere and clouds. Most of the outgoing energy is radiated (withdrawn) to space from the atmosphere and clouds. The figure to the right illustrates this process.
The Greenhouse Effect
Thanks to the greenhouse effect, our planet is warm enough to live on. The greenhouse effect occurs within the earth’s energy budget when some of the heat radiating (withdrawing… remember our budget analogy from above?) from the ocean and earth surface is reflected (transferred) back to Earth by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor. This National Geographic interactive website entertains the concept.
Climate change is occurring largely because humans are adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. More greenhouse gases in the atmosphere means more heat reflected back to earth and warmer temperatures. Warmer temperatures might sound pretty good to your right now (especially if you live in Minnesota and could see your breath this morning as you walked to school or work), but it’s not. Why? Check out NASA’s really great website on the effects of climate change.
Alright, already. What’s the climate-cloud relationship?
From what I can tell, there are three possible theories about the climate-cloud relationship:
So which is it? Probably NOT Theory #1. Maybe Theory #2… or maybe it’s Theory #3? Scientists aren’t quite sure yet, so neither am I, but the evidence is stacking against Theory #1 leaving two possible options. The next big question seems to be surrounding the size of the effects of Theory #2 and Theory #3.
Using what you just read about cloud formation, the earth’s energy budget, greenhouse gases, and climate change (Woah. You just learned a lot!), what do you think? What’s the climate-cloud relationship?
If you want, you can read more about what scientists are saying about the climate-cloud relationship here:
Courtesy Mark RyanA new study published in Nature proposes that our Moon once had a companion satellite that it eventually accreted in a celestial collision. Planetary scientists, Erik Asphaug, of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Martin Jutzi of the University of Bern in Switzerland devised computer simulations that show how it could have happened.
According to present lunar origin theory, four and half billion years ago, while the Earth’s system was forming, gravitational forces attracted a Mars-sized object that collided with the early Earth. The collision - more of a glancing blow than a direct hit - tossed terrestrial material into space that coalesced into our Moon. But during the period of coalescence – perhaps for tens of millions of years - a smaller companion moon (about 1/3 the size of the larger moon) would have been visible in Earth’s primitive sky. Geologically speaking, the mini moon’s existence would have been short-lived. The system was unstable, and sooner or later the moonlet’s orbit would decay and it would be pulled either into Earth’s mass or into that of the larger satellite.
Computer simulations set up by Asphaug and Jutzi reconstruct the latter taking place. The researchers propose that the dominant moon was still in a semi-molten state when its smaller companion collided with it at a sub-sonic speed. Being smaller, the doomed moon would have cooled faster and would have been more solidified, but the collision was hardly devastating. It’s low impact speed made it more like a clump of mud being lobbed against a wall. There wasn’t enough force in the collision to punch through, but just enough to make it stick.
More evidence: lunar composition differences
During NASA’s Apollo lunar program in the late 60s and early 70s, astronauts collected several samples of rock from the near side landing sites. The rocks brought back proved rich in potassium (K), rare earth elements (REE) and phosphorus (P) – hence the acronym. These elements, which are scarcer on the Moon’s dark side, crystallize very slowly in cooling magma, and remain molten until the entire mass of magma solidifies. So according to the researchers, when the collision occurred, it was enough to push much of the still molten magma - and the KREEP along with it - to the near side, and leave a pile of mountainous terrain on the far side.
I find this all pretty fascinating. The hypothesis answers several questions that have been puzzling lunar scientists for several years, and fits well into what we observe now. Of course we only see the Moon’s near side. Gravitational forces keep much of the far side hidden from us except via photography and lunar probes (Why that is can be learned here).
By the way, when you read about the gigatons of carbon emissions that human activities emit each year, it's helpful to have some perspective:
Let's talk gigatons--one billion tons. Every year, human activity emits about 35 gigatons of [carbon dioxide] (the most important greenhouse gas). Of that, 85% comes from fossil fuel burning. To a lot of people, that doesn't mean much -- who goes to the store and buys a gigaton of carrots? For a sense of perspective, a gigaton is about twice the mass of all people on earth, so 35 gigatons is about 70 times the weight of humanity. Every year, humans put that in the atmosphere, and 85% of that is power. Large actions, across whole nations and whole economies, are required to move the needle.
By comparison, our atmosphere is small--99.99997% of our its mass sits below the Karman line, which is often used to define the border between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. At 62 miles above Earth's surface, it’s about as high as the distance between St. Paul, MN, and Menomonie, WI.
The oceans also absorb some of that carbon dioxide, but not without consequence.
Of course, the great part about being responsible is having capability--if our inventions bring about such transformations in the air and oceans, then couldn't we be inventive enough to reduce their negative impacts?
It's a world leader in clean energy investment and clean coal research and development. Last year, it manufactured a third of the world's solar panels and wind turbines, and it's luring companies from all over the world to build factories there. It has recently made huge investments in clean energy education. But it's not America.
Courtesy Jude Freeman
The country I'm describing is China. That's right--the world's newly-dubbed largest net emitter of greenhouse gasses. It isn't bound by reduction requirements under the Kyoto protocol, and its use of fossil fuels is powering a growing and booming economy. And yet, the Chinese are courting US companies with financial incentives to build clean tech factories and research centers in China. They're working to corner clean tech markets in California and South Africa. In fact, over the last three years, China has gone from controlling 2% of California's solar market to a whopping 46%--ousting its American competitors. And that's not all--the country has become a proving ground for clean coal with the guidance of US companies and researchers.
These companies hope to learn from their experiences testing clean coal tech in China, and bring that knowledge back to the US to transform our own polluting coal plants into next-generation powerhouses. So what's in it for the Chinese? They're quickly gaining lead on the cutting edge in green technology, making room for growth in the energy sector without increasing pollution or relying on foreign imports, and reaping economic benefits--and they foresee substantial economic benefits in the future, when they could be the major supplier of green technology and research to the world.
Given the US's slowing progress on clean technologies, what do you think this will mean for our future? Should we be trying to get on top of green tech research and development? Or is it best left to others? Or are those even the right questions--will we have the best success when we pool resources with other countries?