Monday, June 22, 2015

Article: MIT Students Create A Brick That Could End Pollution From Dirty Brick Kilns

We use a lot of bricks. Making them, though, is pretty bad. The Eco BLAC brick is made with waste ash and requires no firing at all. India's brick industry, spread out over 100,000 kilns and producing up to 2 billion bricks a year, is a big source of pollution. To fire to hot temperatures, the ki...

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UCLA discovers how solar cells' charges can last for weeks


30,000 Lux

Solar cells have always been inspired by photosynthesis, so it's only natural for researchers to take cues from different aspects of the energy-making process. A team of UCLA chemists, for instance, have developed a way that will allow solar cells to keep their charge for weeks instead of just a few seconds like current products are capable of. According to Sarah Tolbert, UCLA chem professor and one of the study's authors, they looked into plants' nanoscale structures that can keep negatively charged molecules separated from positively charged ones. "That separation is the key to making the process so efficient," she said.

The team has discovered that in order to mimic those nanoscale structures in plastic solar cells (which are potentially cheaper to make than silicon-based ones), they need to use two components: a polymer donor and a nano-scale fullerene acceptor. The team describes the process as follows:

The UCLA technology arranges the elements more neatly -- like small bundles of uncooked spaghetti with precisely placed meatballs (see image below). Some fullerene meatballs are designed to sit inside the spaghetti bundles, but others are forced to stay on the outside. The fullerenes inside the structure take electrons from the polymers and toss them to the outside fullerene, which can effectively keep the electrons away from the polymer for weeks.

In short, those two can form the right "noodle and meatball" structure to keep different charges away from each other for days to weeks, greatly improving a cell's capability to retain power. It's also a plus that the components can auto-assemble, simply by putting them in water. The ability to store energy is a big deal for solar energy systems, since they need to be able to save enough power to use at night or during days when the sun isn't shining as brightly. UCLA's technology isn't quite ready yet, but Tolbert and her team are already trying to figure out how to incorporate it into real solar cells.

[Image credit: Jason A. Samfield/Flickr, UCLA Chemistry]

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Source: UCLA, Science


Friday, June 5, 2015

High-yield yeast converts 97 percent of a plant's sugars to biofuel


Operations At Usina da Mata Ethanol, Sugar and Energy Plant As Brazil Expands Ethanol Tax Credit

The Department of Energy's BioEnergy Science Center announced a major breakthrough in the biofuel field yesterday: a newly developed strain of yeast capable of producing more than three times the amount of fuel from plant matter as the current record holder. The Center has teamed with Mascoma LLC to develop the new strain, dubbed C5 FUEL. Existing biofuel yeast strains generally only convert about 30 percent of a plant's sugars and cannot effectively convert tough xylose sugars. C5 however can ferment up to 97 percent of plant sugars into ethanol, including the xylose that other strains can't break down. What's more, it does all that in just 48 hours as opposed to the multiple days or weeks that other strains require.

Update: The headline of this post has been updated to clarify that it's 97 percent of a plant's sugars the team is claiming to convert into biofuel, not 97 percent of the entire plant.

The BESC team presented its findings at the 31st International Fuel Ethanol Workshop in Minneapolis on Thursday morning. They hope that the discovery will help make ethanol-based biofuels more accessible to the consumer market. "Driving down the cost to develop, verify and consolidate bioprocessing was at the heart of the BESC effort when we began in 2007, and this achievement allows us to advance to the next challenge," BESC Director Paul Gilna said in a statement. "This accomplishment represents a clearly impactful example of how our partnering with industry can accelerate the translation of our research capabilities and findings into commercial products." Up next, the BESC hopes to perform the same biochemical gymnastics with thermophilic bacteria, which would produce fuel directly from biomass in just one step.

[Image Credit: Bloomberg via Getty Images (Top) - ORNL (inline)]


Saturday, May 30, 2015

Mass deaths of rare Kazakhstan antelopes stir conservation fears


The sudden deaths of tens of thousands of endangered antelopes in ex-Soviet Kazakhstan over the past two weeks have left scientists scrambling for answers and conservationists worried about the animal's future

Astana (Kazakhstan) (AFP) - The sudden deaths of tens of thousands of endangered antelopes in ex-Soviet Kazakhstan over the past two weeks have left scientists scrambling for answers and conservationists worried about the animal's future.

Over 120,000 rare saiga antelopes -- more than a third of the total global population -- have been wiped out in a devastating blow that the United Nations Environment Programme has called "catastrophic". 

UN experts have said the mass deaths are down to "a combination of biological and environmental factors."

Scientists have struggled to put their finger on the exact nature of the disease that has felled entire herds, but say findings point towards an infectious disease caused by various bacteria.

Any infections have likely been exacerbated by recent rains that have made the antelopes -- 90 percent of which live on the steppes of Central Asian Kazakhstan -- less able to cope with diseases.

"Unseasonal wetness may have been something that lowered their immunity to infection but until we do more analysis we will not know anything for sure," Steffen Zuther of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative told AFP.

The rate of the deaths has staggered those who have studied the species -- whose ancestors have inhabited the region since the ice age. 

"A one hundred percent mortality for the herds affected is extraordinary," said Richard Kock, a professor at the Royal Veterinary College in London who recently returned from Kazakhstan. 

"We are dealing with creatures that have fairly low resilience." 

The sudden spate of deaths comes as a nasty shock as up until recently the saiga antelopes -- which live for between six and 10 years and are known for their protruding noses -- had been hailed as something of a conservation success.

Until mid-May, when the country's Ministry of Agriculture began reporting the deaths, saiga numbers in Kazakhstan had rallied from an estimated 20,000 in 2003 to the more than 250,000.

In 1993, there were over a million saiga antelopes, mostly concentrated in the steppe land of Kazakhstan, neighbouring Russia and Mongolia. 

The susceptibility of the population since then has raised extinction fears and the saiga is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

- Decade to recover -

While herds that have not already been struck down are thought to be safe for the moment, Kazakhstan's Prime Minister Karim Massimov set up a working group including international experts Thursday to establish reasons for the deaths and oversee disinfection of lands in the three regions where the saiga died.

"If there is one positive that has come from this it is that the government has become very open to international channels of cooperation now," Kock from the Royal Veterinary College in London said.

Even then, however, scientists estimate that it will take a decade for the antelope numbers to recover from the recent deaths.

For now though they are hoping that the beasts can avoid even more potent diseases that have raged in nearby areas, such as the morbillivirus epidemic that swept across neighbouring China last year, and other threats. 

One of those is the rise in poaching for the animal's horn -- prized in Chinese medicine -- which grew widespread following the collapse of the Soviet Union but has slowed down since.

Kazakhstan extended a ban on hunting the saiga until 2021 four years ago and imposes penalties of up to five years in prison for poachers.


Thursday, April 16, 2015

These Tiny Capsules Suck Up CO2


They might look more like candy, but these micro-capsules are rather more special than that. Their shiny shell allows CO2 to pass straight through—where it can be trapped by a liquid held in their core.



Tuesday, April 14, 2015

2 waterways that will host 2016 Olympic events are filled with dead fish and trash 16 months before the games


dead fish rio de janeiro 4

Two Rio de Janeiro waterways that are scheduled to host 2016 Olympic events are in rough shape with 16 months until the games begin.

The waterways, which were already plagued by sewage and pollution problems, have also been hit by fish die-offs in recent months, according to the Associated Press.

Dead fish called twaite shad have been floating to the surface of the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon, which will hold canoeing and rowing events. According to the AP, some officials believe the fluctuations in oxygen levels that caused the die-off are a result of pollution, while others believe it has been caused by changes in temperature from rain and high sea levels.

dead fish rio de janeiro

A local photographer named Alex Moutinho told the AP, "Every year there are these die-offs, sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller. It's one more Brazilian shame."

dead fish rio de janeiro 6

rio lagoon fish die

This is the second die-off of 2015. In February, Guanabara Bay, which will hold the Olympic sailing events, was filled with dead fish, the cause of which is unknown, according to the AP.

dead fish rio de janeiro 2

Brazilian authorities pledged to have the w! aterways cleaned before the Olympics, but now fear they'll fall short of their goals, sparking concerns over the safety of Olympic athletes performing on the water.

According to CNN, Mayor Eduardo Paes told Brazilian sports network SporTV last month that much of the pollution will remain, though he's not concerned:

"The Olympics are also in a time that has very little rain, then this amount of debris that comes from five municipalities in the metropolitan region, with poor sanitation, is also controllable... I do not see as a problem for the Olympics"

What Guanabara Bay looks like with 16 months to go:

rio beach trash

rio bay olympics pollution

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NOW WATCH: Here's what Rio looks like 500 days before the 2016 Olympics


Friday, April 10, 2015

More than 130 dolphins beach in Japan


Children look at melon-headed whales beached on the shore of Hokota city, northeast of Tokyo on April 10, 2015

Hokota (Japan) (AFP) - More than 130 melon-headed whales, a member of the dolphin family usually found in the deep ocean, beached in Japan on Friday, sparking frantic efforts by locals and coastguards to save them.

Rescuers were battling to stop the creatures' skin from drying out as they lay on a beach about 100 kilometres (60 miles) northeast of Tokyo, while some were being carried in slings back towards the ocean.

Television footage showed several animals from the large pod had been badly cut, with many having deep gashes on their skin.

An AFP journalist at the scene said that despite efforts to get the dolphins into the water, some were being pushed back onto the beach by the tide soon after they had been released.

A number of the creatures had died, he said, and were being buried.

"We see one or two whales washing ashore a year, but this may be the first time to find over 100 of them on a beach," a coastguard official told AFP.

The pod was stretched out along a roughly 10-kilometre-long stretch of beach in Hokota, Ibaraki, where they had been found by locals early Friday morning.

"They are alive. I feel sorry for them," a man told public broadcaster NHK, as others were seen ferrying buckets of seawater to the stranded animals and pouring it over them.

Several animals could be seen writhing in a futile effort to move themselves on the sand, although as the morning progressed they were clearly becoming weaker.

Melon-headed whales, also known as electra dolphins, are relatively common in Japanese waters and can grow to be two- to three- meters (six- to nine-feet) long.

In 2011, about 50 melon-headed whales beached themselves in a similar area.

Despite international opprobrium, Japan hunts minke and pilot whales off its own coast, and has for many years also pursued the mammals in the Antarctic Ocean using a scientific exemption to the international moratorium on whaling.

It has never made any secret of the fact that meat from the animals is also consumed.

However, a UN court ruled last year that its hunt was a commercial activity masquerading as research, and ordered it be halted.

Tokyo, which insists whaling is a tradition and labels environmental campaigners as "cultural imperialists", has vowed to restart a redesigned southern ocean whaling programme, possibly later this year.

Japan also defies international opinion with the slaughter of hundreds of dolphins in a bay near the southern whaling town of Taiji.

The killing was brought to worldwide attention with the Oscar-winning documentary "The Cove".


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