Stories tagged Energy Transformations


Chilean quake sped up Earth's rotation, tipped planet's axis

Earth spins faster
Earth spins fasterCourtesy NASA
If you read the post about how earthquakes differ, you would know that in the Chile earthquake, a large amount of the Earth's crust plunged under its neighboring crust, bringing it closer to the center of the earth.
Just as Olympic figure skaters spin faster when their arms move closer to their body, the Earth is now spinning faster making our day about 1.26 microseconds shorter than it was before the quake.
Earth was also slightly tipped off balance, like when a spinning skater brings in one arm but not the other. The planet's axis tilted about 8 centimeters. This is insignificant compared to other wobbles measuring several meters resulting from winds and ocean currents.


WavesCourtesy skittzitilby
Three unusually large waves crashed into a Mediterranean cruise ship traveling between Barcelona, Spain and Genoa, Italy killing two passengers. Witnesses say the 26-foot waves smashed windows on the front of the ship. By freak wave standards these weren't by any means the largest (see Thor's huge wave post from a few years ago), but they were large enough to do damage. Rogue waves aren't uncommon, and sailing lore often mentions the "Three Sisters", abnormally large waves that come in sets of threes among smaller waves, like these recent ones did. This NOAA webpage attributes these kinds of freakish waves to storms and high winds, but is it possible these abnormal killer waves were generated by the recent earthquake in Chile? Just a thought.

BBC story


There's lots of buzz (normal buzz, not our patented Science Buzz) on the 'net today about the "Bloom Box" featured on 60 Minutes this weekend.

It seemed to me to be a pretty junky interview and feature, but I'm intrigued nonetheless; the Bloom Box is supposed to be an efficient new fuel cell that would allow electricity to be produced at the site where it will be used, eliminating transmission losses, and efficiently converting fuel to energy.

It runs on hydrocarbons, but it sounds like it's pretty omnivorous as to the kinds it can use (so natural gas works, but so would carbon-neutral biogas, etc), and it presumably emits CO2, only much less of it than traditional power generation. (The interview was extremely fuzzy on that aspect, but the Atlantic's article about Bloom from a month ago says that the device does release CO2.)

Something like 20 companies in California are already testing Bloom Box units, and the people making them to have attracted a ton of money, so the technology doesn't look quite so pie in the sky as a lot of other energy inventions we're supposed to get excited about.

The guy behind the Bloom Box believes that, inside of a decade, you'll be able to have one in your basement for something like $3000 dollars. More expensive than a used Super Nintendo, but, as far as major appliances go, pretty darn cheap. We'll see about that, sir... The featured skeptic seems to think that, if we see it at all, we'll see it coming from a company like GE, not Bloom Energy.

Here's the 60 Minutes piece:

Watch CBS News Videos Online

The whole operation has been kept pretty secret until recently, and supposedly there will be more details coming soon.

But until then... What do you think? Ho-hum? Hoax? Or is this something to be excited about?


Smallest LASER ever

Nanolaser: Image shows the nanolaser design: a gold core surrounded by a glasslike shell filled with green dye
Nanolaser: Image shows the nanolaser design: a gold core surrounded by a glasslike shell filled with green dyeCourtesy Birck Nanotechnology Center, Purdue University

Lasers, now used in CD and DVD players and to read prices at the checkout counter, were first developed about fifty years ago. They work by resonating light between two reflectors. They cannot be made smaller than half a wavelength of light, though (about 200 nanometers).


Researchers have now figured a way to force a sphere of only 44 nanometers to emit laser light (more than 1 million could fit inside a red blood cell). These nano-lasers are called spasers which stands for "surface plasmon amplification by stimulated emission of radiation".
When light is pumped onto the sphere, the surface coating generates a form of radiation called surface plasmons.

To act like lasers, they require a "feedback system" that causes the surface plasmons to oscillate back and forth so that they gain power and can be emitted as light.Plasmon resonances are capable of squeezing optical frequency oscillations into a nanoscopic cavity to enable a true nanolaser
Purdue University

Nanophotonics and nanoplasmonics

This new area of technology sometimes called nanophotonics or nanoplasmonics will enable better microscopes, smaller computer memories, faster computer circuits that use light instead of electrons, and many more yet to be imagined applications.

Read the research papers

This current work on spasers is published in the journal Nature: Applied physics: Lasers go nano
Demonstration of a spaser-based nanolaser


Solar cells made from common materials

Solar cells for everyone
Solar cells for everyoneCourtesy Dominic

Solar cells produce less than 1/1000 of the Earth's electricity. This is mainly because they are expensive and are made from rare, hard to obtain materials.
An IBM research team, managed by David Mitzi, is working on photovoltaic cells that are made from common materials.

The new solar cells are also cheaper to manufacture, using a “printing” technique that uses a hydrazine solution containing copper and tin with nanoparticles of zinc dispersed within it. The solution is then spin-coated and heat treated in the presence of selenium or sulfur vapor. PhysOrg

9.6% Efficiency

This new material, called kesterite, was 6.8% efficient in 2009. IBM increased the efficiency to 9.8% and is planning to increase the efficiency above 11 per cent, which is equal to or better than the traditional solar cells.

Abstract of published paper: High-Efficiency Solar Cell with Earth-Abundant Liquid-Processed Absorber Advanced Materials


Space travel kills you: Well, probably not you, but it would kill these two BFFs.
Space travel kills you: Well, probably not you, but it would kill these two BFFs.Courtesy JGordon
Heyo, Buzzketeers. Any Starketeer Treketeers out there?

Yes? Well check this bit of fun science out: a Professor at Johns Hopkins says that traveling at near-light speeds in a space ship (as folks often do in science fiction) would have the delightful effect of almost instantly killing everyone on board.

Aw, whoops. Did I say "fun"? I meant the opposite of fun.

See, it'd obviously be no good to run into a big chunk of rock while flying around super fast in outer space, but (fortunately) big chunks of rock are really pretty rare way out in space. That's not the problem. The problem is the tiny stuff. The really, really tiny stuff.

Here on Earth, each cubic centimeter of air has about 30 billion billion atoms in it. (That's right—two "billions.") In outer space, however, each cubic centimeter of space might have 2 atoms in it. Two lonely, harmless little hydrogen atoms, drifting around, looking for friends. That low-density of matter is no problem for a low-speed ship—it'd just zoom right through them—but for a ship approaching the speed of light, they could be a huge problem, according to this professor.

Because the ship would be going so fast, the hydrogen atoms would "appear highly compressed, thereby increasing the number of atoms hitting the craft." There's something here about Einstein's special theory of relativity here, but, you know, blah blah blah.That stuff is complicated. I think if it like going running on a buggy night—if you run fast through a cloud of bugs, more of those bugs are going to hit you, and harder. (The moral there being: run with your mouth closed, and run slowly, especially if you're naked.)

So, because so many of the hydrogen atoms are hitting the ship, and because the ship is going so fast, it would be like turning a giant particle accelerator on the ship (except, in this case, the ship is being accelerated into the particles, not the other way around, but the effect is the same). It would be like getting hit with approximately the same amount of energy as if you stepped into the beam of the Large Hadron Collider. Even with a 4-inch-thick aluminum hull, 99% of the hydrogen would blast through the ship as radiation, frying the electronics and killing the crew in seconds. Sad.

You can't wrestle a particle beam, Kirk.

Still, maybe there are some Trekkies and physicists out there who can make us all feel a little better about this? The Johns Hopkins professor clearly knows a ton about radiation, but maybe he's not such an expert on space, or about the physics of Star Trek. I'm certainly not. Don't they warp space on that show? So that they aren't traveling though billions of miles of space (and all that dangerous hydrogen), but are skipping from one spot to another? Something like that? Help me out here. The image of Spock dying of radiation poisoning (again) makes me cry salty tears.


Brazil grants environmental license for Belo Monte dam

Belo Monte dam proposal on Xingu River
Belo Monte dam proposal on Xingu RiverCourtesy Kmusser

A controversial battle to flood 500 sq km of rain forest in order to provide clean energy for 23 million Brazilian homes appears to be over. The creation of the Belo Monte Dam is expected to begin in 2015 and is rumored to cost around $17 billion. When it is completed, Belo Monte would be third largest hydro-electric dam in the world.

Brazil's environment minister Carlos Minc has stated that those who win the bidding process to building contract and operate Belo Monte will have to pay around $800 million to protect the environment and meet 40 other conditions.

What are the other costs?

Lives of up to 40,000 natives who extract from the river most of what they need for food and water could be affected. The biodiversity within the area to be flooded would definitely be effected. Does the ever increasing need for electricity justify these hydro-electric projects? Over the next decade at least 70 dams are said to be planned for the Amazon region.


Yes, of course I'm in a tobacco field: You guys figured out what?! But how? Of course... with a virus! I'll meet you at the tobaccoratory!
Yes, of course I'm in a tobacco field: You guys figured out what?! But how? Of course... with a virus! I'll meet you at the tobaccoratory!Courtesy Lauras512
Yeah, I’ll tell you what it can’t do: it can’t get that stink out of my freakin’ mittens.

But, besides that, tobacco is an interesting plant, and useful for a lot more than giving us cancer and temporary good feelings. Currently, some scientists are thinking that tobacco might be able to give us electricity-producing solar panels too.

It all started one sunny afternoon, when two scientists were lying in an open patch in a tobacco field, holding hands and watching the occasional cloud drift by.

“Isn’t tobacco great?” asked the first scientist.

“Yes,” sighed the second. She had just woven a bracelet from tobacco leaves, and was feeling like there couldn’t be a better plant in the world.

“But, really,” the first continued. “It’s really great.”

“Yes…” said the second, wondering where her colleague was going with the thought.

“Like, it sits here all day, just being tobacco…” started the first scientist.

“Which is great,” interrupted the second scientist.

“Which is great,” agreed the first scientist. Then she went on. “And it’s so good at sitting here, absorbing the sun… I wonder… I wonder…”

“Wonder what?” asked the second scientist, propping herself up on one elbow to look at the other scientist.

“Well, I wonder if we couldn’t use tobacco’s sunlight-gathering abilities to make, you know, solar cells. For electricity.”

The first scientist let herself sink back on to the ground, brushing dirt from the arm of her white lab coat. “You’re drunk,” she said.

“No! Well… maybe a little,” admitted the first scientist. “But I think it could work. Tobacco has evolved to have its chromophores—its sunlight-gathering molecules…”

“I know what a chromophore is,” said the second scientist.

“To have its chromophores very efficiently spaced out in its cells,” the first scientist went on. “If we could just figure out a way to make tobacco produce more chromophores, we could extract them from the plant, and coat solar cells with them. It could be a cheap, environmentally friendly way to make solar panels!”

“But how are we going to entice tobacco to produce more chromophores? By asking politely?” pointed out the second scientist.

“Yeah…” The first scientist frowned. “Yeah, I suppose you’re right. Never mind.”

In the warm air of the sunny tobacco patch, the suggestion was soon forgotten, and the first scientist drifted off to sleep. The second scientist played with the new tobacco bracelet on her wrist, and wrinkled her nose as a gentle gust of wind blew dust through the surrounding plants. She sneezed.

“Wait a second!” The second scientist shook the first scientist awake, looking excited. “What if we infected the tobacco with a virus?”

“What?” asked the first scientist sleepily, having all but forgotten about the idea.

“We could engineer a tobacco virus that would cause the plants to make more chromophores!” She gestured at the field around them. “We could just spray it on the field, like… like… like a giant sneeze!”

The first scientist jerked upright and gripped the second scientist’s shoulders tightly, her expression so intense it was frightening. The green of the tobacco all around them reflected in her eyes, giving her a Bruce Banner-ish, pre-hulk out look. The second scientist shivered.

“You,” whispered the first scientist, “are… a… genius!”

And that’s pretty much how it all went down.

This sort of thing takes time, though, so we shouldn’t expect the big tobacco/solar power juggernaut to get off the couch any time soon. Tobacco’s natural chromophore arrangement makes chains of molecules that could be ideal for absorbing light on solar panels, but they haven’t been made to produce electric current just yet. Once that gets figured out, however, it could lead to cheaper solar cells, with some biodegradable components. (On the other hand, they would likely have a shorter lifespan than other types of solar panels, but, hey, who doesn’t like throwing stuff away now and again?)


Elysia chlorotica: You think you're so special, don't you?
Elysia chlorotica: You think you're so special, don't you?Courtesy lauredhel
Some of you may already know my feelings on mollusks. In short, I’m against them.

It’s not that I necessarily want them all exterminated, or anything. It’s just that mollusks, with their tentacles and beaks and pseudopodia and large brains, freak my Schmidt out. And I tend to live under a “you’re either with us or against us” credo, and mollusks obviously aren’t “with us.” (They aren’t with me, anyway. Frankly, most things aren’t.)

But I get by. I know that there are mollusks out there, doing… I don’t know what. Probably something utterly horrible. But we leave each other alone, and more or less leave it at that. It’s a workable arrangement.

Now and again, however, a mollusk stretches its squishy neck out and, by its very existence, makes cracks in the already fragile JGordon/Mollusca peace. It’s like the cold war, really—if one side does something strange, or develops a fantastic new piece of technology, the other side gets a little nervous. So, naturally, I’m a little cagey about this news:

There’s a marine slug (a mollusk, of course, that feeds itself through photosynthesis.

Are you kidding me? I’m all, “I think I’ve got chronic anxiety!” and this lousy slug is like, “That’s too bad. Also, I feed myself with sunlight.” I can’t even get groceries because my car battery died (there’s a very scary tree near my bus stop, so that’s out), and this little jerk is a phototroph. If I had laser eyes, or something, the situation would be a little more balanced, but last time I checked I didn’t have laser eyes.

I have to give it to the slug, though—it’s a pretty neat trick. Early in its approximately one-year-long lifecycle, the slug eats some photosynthetic algae. From that point on, the slug is photosynthetic; it feeds itself by using sunlight to convert CO2 and water into sugar, just like plants do. What’s more, the photosynthesis isn’t being performed by algae inside the slug (some organisms, like lichen contain algae, which feeds them). The slug itself has genes for photosynthesis, and the photosynthesizing genes from the algae are just required to kick-start the slug’s own abilities. And then, BAM, a photosynthetic animal.

The leaf-shaped slug, which lives in salty swamps in Eastern Canada and grows to be about an inch long, is remarkable not only for its photosynthetic abilities, but also for something unique in the process written above. Getting those kick-starting genes from the algae requires gene transfer. Passing genes from one species to another is a rare and complicated thing, but some microscopic, single-celled organisms have been known to do it. This is the first time gene transfer has been observed between two multi-cellular organisms (the slug and the algae, of course).

Aside from being, well, just sort of weird, the slug’s gene transferring abilities might turn out to be useful in the future of gene therapy, where new genes are inserted into cells to combat diseases. A practical application whatever transferring mechanism the slug and algae use is a long way off, though. And, anyway, I’ll be damned if I ever use anything that came from a mollusk.


Electric cars, hydrogen cars… algae cars? Scientists and policy makers are researching ways to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions associated with automobile use. One promising fossil-fuel alternative may be a biofuel made from algae.

Some varieties of algae are as much as 50% lipids (oil). This oil can be removed from the algae and converted into biofuel in a way that is similar to how vegetable oil is converted into biodiesel. Compared to other biofuel crops, such as corn and soybeans, algae require less space and grow 10 to 20 times faster. What sets algae apart even more is that they can help us remove certain pollutants from the water.
Could we put algae to work in the Twin Cities?: There are a lot of renewable energy sources being explored right now and many questions to ask of them. We need to consider all of the energy and natural resources that go into producing and delivering renewable energy. For example, what renewable energy would be the easiest to deliver to the Twin Cities?
Could we put algae to work in the Twin Cities?: There are a lot of renewable energy sources being explored right now and many questions to ask of them. We need to consider all of the energy and natural resources that go into producing and delivering renewable energy. For example, what renewable energy would be the easiest to deliver to the Twin Cities?Courtesy Lee Nachtigal

The Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities is funding a project to model how to grow algae on a scale large enough for biofuel production. Researchers at Dr. Roger Ruan’s lab grow algae in sewage plant discharge. Their idea is to build algae farms next to wastewater treatment plants so the algae can remove nitrates and phosphates from the water before it is released into rivers. Too many nitrates and phosphates are harmful to rivers, but these nutrients are good for algae. The algae also capture carbon dioxide released by the treatment plants when they burn wastewater sludge.
UMN Center for Biorefining

Why the growing interest in algae fuel? One reason is the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program. This program mandates that fuel producers derive a certain amount of fuel from renewable sources. Current standards require that 12.95 billion gallons of transportation fuel be from renewable sources. By 2022, this amount is set to triple to 36 billion gallons. RFS

There is a lot of talk about different renewable energy sources and it is difficult to decide which options are the best to pursue. Even if algae fuel never makes it to the gas pumps, it is encouraging to consider a renewable fuel that is less resource intensive and can actually help improve water quality. I would be interested to hear if anyone thinks algae are “fuel for thought.”