Stories tagged University of Minnesota

Sun power: A new online mapping system tells you how strong the solar energy is where you live in Minnesota.
Sun power: A new online mapping system tells you how strong the solar energy is where you live in Minnesota.Courtesy Pujanak
Have you wondered how strong the sunshine is that falls near your home for solar power purposes? A team of University of Minnesota graduate students has mapped the solar suitability for locations all across the state. You can search it like a Google map and find out the power of the sunshine where you live.


Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending Environmental Initiative's 2012 Legislative Preview, part of their Policy Forum series.

Basically, a bipartisan group of legislators discussed their environmental priorities with a diverse audience of public, private and nonprofit representatives for the purpose of providing

"a valuable first look at the most pressing environmental issues facing the state in anticipation of the upcoming legislative session."

MN Most Wanted: Asian carp, aquatic invasive species
MN Most Wanted: Asian carp, aquatic invasive speciesCourtesy State of Michigan

The biggest surprise to yours truly was the prevalence of carp among the discussion. Asian carp, AIS (aquatic invasive species), etc., etc.. Everyone appeared in agreement regarding the threat posed by carp, so the real question is what do we do about their impending invasion?

One repeated suggestion was to fund more research, specifically at the University of Minnesota. This is probably an important step towards defending our state waterways, and I think this story helps illustrate why:

"As yet, no technology can stop these downstream migrations; neither grates nor dangerous, expensive electrical barriers do the job.

But a wall of cheap, harmless bubbles just might—at least well enough to have a significant benefit."

Researchers at the U of MN have discovered that bubble barriers may deter 70-80% of carp migration. It's not the visual affect of the bubbles that prevents all but the most daring carp from penetrating the barrier, rather the noise -- equivalent to what you or I would experience standing about three feet from a jackhammer.

The bubble barrier has currently only been tested on common carp, but researchers involved in the experiment want to test the technology on Asian carp next.

In addition to the bubble barrier, U of M researchers are investigating whether Asian carp pheromones can be used to lure them into traps.


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.]

Match made in Minnesota: Wind and water "play nice" in pumped-storage hydroelectric technology.
Match made in Minnesota: Wind and water "play nice" in pumped-storage hydroelectric technology.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.


The University of Minnesota's College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences published a summary of turkey-related research just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Yum!: Destined for a Thanksgiving plate near you
Yum!: Destined for a Thanksgiving plate near youCourtesy nick macneill

For those of you who have better things to do today (because the work's still gotta get done despite the short week) or short attention spans (because the No Homework Zone of Thanksgiving vacation is almost here), I've included some of my own highlights from the article below. You're welcome.

  • At around 49 million turkeys, Minnesota leads the nation in turkey production.
  • Modern commercially grown turkeys have to be artificially inseminated (human-assisted reproduction) due to breeding for other traits like big, meaty breasts.
  • Turkey reproductive cycles are affected by light. For maximum egg production, hens need 14 hours of daylight.
  • "Broodiness" is a legit condition that occurs among hens that signals the end of egg production for a season.
  • U of M researcher, El Halawani and his colleagues discovered that broodiness is caused by a specific brain chemical and is preventable through vaccination. The vaccine is patented, but not yet commercially adopted.
  • About 70% of the cost of raising a turkey goes to feed.
  • U of M researcher, Sally Noll researches the ability of ethanol byproduct DDGS to economically supplement a turkey's diet.
  • Despite high industry demand, poultry science students are in low supply.
  • Oh, and one more (for your Thanksgiving day Trivial Pursuit game):

    "The costume that 'Big Bird' wears on Sesame Street is rumored to be made of turkey feathers."

Check out the interview with Marla Spivak. She is a MacArthur Fellow and Distinguished McKnight Professor and Extension Entomologist in the Department of Entomology at the University of Minnesota. Her research and extension efforts focus on honeybee health, breeding, behavior and on the sustainable management of alternative pollinators.



Let's play "Alphabet Soup"! What do you think the acronym PGC stands for?

Plumber's Green Coat.
Public Greeting Ceremony?
Periwinkle Glam Cupcakes??
...Pennsylvania Game Commission?!

It could stand for all of those, I suppose, but today the correct answer is... Polar Geospatial Center.
Old-timey aerial photograph of Antarctica's snowy surface: Photographed in 1947 under Operation Windmill, a U.S. Navy expedition to test equipment, train personnel, and reaffirm American interests in Antarctica.
Old-timey aerial photograph of Antarctica's snowy surface: Photographed in 1947 under Operation Windmill, a U.S. Navy expedition to test equipment, train personnel, and reaffirm American interests in Antarctica.Courtesy Smithsonian Institution

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the University of Minnesota's PGC has supplied maps, logistical support and training to US researchers in Antarctica for over five years. Recently, they’ve had the opportunity to expand their resources to cover the Arctic as well.

*** Beep! Beep! We've interrupted to bring you a not-so-important-at-all notice: ***

Maps are awesome! They're useful for getting from Point A to Point B and many are beautiful enough to frame and hang on your wall. Handy and pretty. What's more to love?? Maps are so great that the author of this post took an entire college course in maps (there was some aerial photography too, to be fair). It rocked her socks.

*** We will now return to your previously scheduled program.***
New-fangled satellite image of Antarctic Peninsula
New-fangled satellite image of Antarctic PeninsulaCourtesy Google and NASA

Some of the maps used by the PGC are originals: newly created for a specific team’s research goals. For example, they’ve used high-resolution satellite imagery to count emperor penguin and Weddell seal populations. By tracking the changes of animal populations, arctic landscapes, and seascapes, the PGC is building a record of the effects of climate change.

Bonus: You don’t have to be a researcher yourself to enjoy the PGC’s map work because they partner with Google to keep Google Maps and Google Earth up-to-date on the Arctic and Antarctic. (Note: You have to download a plugin for Google Earth.)

Happy mapping!


If you're a total Buzz nerd like JGordon, you may have noticed a number of posts with the tag "Future Earth" over the last couple of years. They started when the folks here at the Science Museum of Minnesota began researching a new permanent exhibit called Future Earth, opening Fall 2011 at SMM. This exhibit will ask, "How do we survive and thrive on a human-dominated planet?"

EarthBuzz: This new branch of the Buzz focuses on Future Earth topics.
EarthBuzz: This new branch of the Buzz focuses on Future Earth topics.Courtesy SMM

This is a different question than we're used to asking, but it's a vital one. Understanding the answer means studying more than just global warming, rising sea levels, and population growth--we also have to think about energy production, agriculture, retreating glaciers, transportation, hunger, poverty, development, and the list goes on. It turns out that because all of these issues are interrelated, we can't study or address any one of them in total isolation.

This new way of understanding is what inspired the Future Earth exhibit. Future Earth will look at environmental issues with a fresh perspective, explore the ways we study and understand our impacts on the environment, and shed light on projects that offer innovative solutions to complex problems, such as this one we hope to implement at Science Museum of Minnesota. The goal is to foster understanding, hope, and action.

Future Earth is part of a larger effort taking place at SMM, the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, and a team of other institutions called the Future Earth Initiative. Funded by the National Science Foundation, FEI aims to raise awareness and offer workable solutions for life in a human-dominated environment. Given adequate time and resources, these solutions could help reduce our negative impacts on the environment while providing us all with the energy we need to live. Think of it as saving two birds with one…thing that you save birds with…


You know what I think makes humans unique? Our ability to solve problems. Ingenuity. Our can-do attitude. Throughout history, if we found a problem, we sought a solution. Too cold at night? Fire. Killing a mammoth with your hands too deadly? A team of spearman. Flash forward thousands of years and our problems became more sophisticated. Horse and buggy too slow? Automobiles. Candlelight not bright enough? Light bulbs. Washing laundry and dishes too tedious? Washing machines and dishwashers. Typewriters cramping your style? Computers. Computers cramping your style? Android phones. (Have you caught my drift? Good.) Now, some of our solutions are becoming new problems. Cars and electricity emit pollutants and greenhouse gases. Washing machines and dishwashers are using too much water. Computers and cell phones require the mining and eventual disposal of toxic metals. Once again, it’s time for some good ol’ human problem solving.

A Literal Eco-Footprint: Somehow, I don't think this is exactly what Sarah Hobbes and team had in mind.
A Literal Eco-Footprint: Somehow, I don't think this is exactly what Sarah Hobbes and team had in mind.Courtesy urje's photostream (Flickr)

Sarah Hobbes and her collaborators identified a problem: we aren’t doing enough to reduce our household ecologic footprints, especially regarding carbon. Now, they’re working on a solution by researching what influences families to change their living habits and minimize their footprint. This past Sunday’s edition of the Star Tribune covered Sarah’s research story (the Buzz’s own Liza was even quoted!). Sarah Hobbes is an ecologist at the University of Minnesota and a resident fellow at the Institute on the Environment. Her research project doesn’t take place in a lab, but rather in peoples’ home – including the St. Paul house Sarah shares with her husband (also a University of Minnesota ecologist) and two children. The research team uses a 23-page survey to understand what kind of ecological footprint Ramsey and Anoka county homes are leaving. (Btw, kudos to those of you who already completed the lengthy survey! Science really appreciates people like you.)

Some of the initial results aren’t surprising: While most of us really do care about the environment,

“For most families, cost and convenience are more important than concern about the environment. People in the suburbs tend to use more fertilizer than those in the urban core. People with bigger houses and bigger families had a bigger carbon footprint, as did people who drove farther to work.” (Star Tribune article)

But what’s most interesting is that competition really gets us going. That is, respondents were motivated to reduce their ecological footprint after they compared their own rank to their neighbors’. Larry Baker, a project collaborator, stated,

“We expect that attitudes will drive 10 or 20 percent of the carbon emissions… If we could reduce energy use by 20 percent, that would be a huge benefit.” (Start Tribune article)

No kidding! That would be fantastic!! The full survey report hasn’t been published yet, but I’m sure looking forward to the recommended solution.

Want to know your ecological footprint? Try out this online Ecological Footprint Quiz.


I was not even a thought in the 1970s, but I've heard it was a pretty good time to be a rock. People took you as their pets, and I'll bet Professor Lawrence Edwards had a couple Pet Rocks back in the day.

Family Portrait: From left to right: Momma Igneous, Baby Sedimentary, and Poppa Metamorphic.
Family Portrait: From left to right: Momma Igneous, Baby Sedimentary, and Poppa Metamorphic.Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

You see, Edwards is an isotope geochemist, which sounds just about as awesome as it is: he studies the teeny tiny radioactive elements in rocks. These elements help Edwards date rocks. No, that doesn't mean he wines and dines them. Quite the opposite! Edwards developed a sneaky way to figure out how old they are (and let me tell you, nobody wants to be reminded of their age when they're hundreds of thousands of years old).

Edwards' method is similar to carbon-14 dating, only way better. In certain kinds of rocks, Edwards can date rocks as old as 500,000 years compared to carbon-14's measly 50,000 years. That's a whole order of magnitude older! Here's how Edwards' method works: Scientists know that half of any quantity of uranium decays into thorium every 245,500 years. Edwards uses a mass spectrometer to measure the ratio of two radioactive elements -- uranium and thorium. Then, Edwards compares the present ratio of uranium to thorium to what scientists would expect from the half-life decay and bada-bing, bada-boom! Simply genius.

Why am I getting all hyped up over some old rocks? Because they're helping us learn more about ourselves and the tenuous place we hold in this world. For example, Edwards has used his super-special method to trace the strength of monsoon seasons in China. Turns out weak monsoon seasons correlate with the fall of several historical dynasties, and strong monsoons correlate with climatic warming in Europe. Edwards calls this work,

"the best-dated climate record covering this time period."

The FREE Math and Science Family Fun Fair is coming to the University of Minnesota this weekend, November 13 from 10am-4pm in the Coffman Union's Great Hall.

This event "...will feature fascinating activities, hands-on exhibits, and entertaining presentations showcasing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. This year’s highlights include Physics Force shows, a Mystery Science Room, and much more."

Special Recommendation: Don't miss Physics Force! I saw it my junior year of high school because my physics teacher offered extra credit for attending the show. High-energy and a bit wacky, I liken the vibe to Myth Busters. It was the easiest and most fun extra credit project I've ever done! And, it clearly made an educational impression.

Here's a YouTube video from Physics Force: