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Scientists Turn Green Algae Into Biofuel at $50 a Barrel
They have recently been able to report at least theoretical progress with nuclear energy, algae and a novel alloy.
In just a few days, they proved that thermonuclear fusion—once somebody works out how to make it happen—will be economically viable.
Swirling patterns of green-blue algae on the surface of a dam in Northern Ireland. Photo credit: Bobby McKay / Flickr
They have worked out how to cultivate green algae for biofuel in huge quantities at US$50 a barrel, which is about the cost of crude oil.
They have even found a way to get electrical energy directly from cyanobacteria or blue-green algae.
And they have exploited an alloy that can deliver a colossal pulse of electric power when you kick it.
None of these technologies have advanced beyond the experimental stage, but all are testaments to the ingenuity now being deployed in the world’s laboratories and experimental start-ups.
Fusion power—not to be confused with nuclear fission—exploits the thermonuclear conversion of hydrogen to helium with little or no noxious discharge and the generous release of energy.
This is what powers the sun and fuels the planet’s life. It is also the basis of the thermonuclear bomb. For the last 60 years, humans have been trying to make fusion work peacefully on Earth, with only tantalizing flickers of success.
But if it does work, British scientists report in the journal Fusion Engineering and Design, it will not be too expensive.
They analyzed the cost of building, running and ultimately decommissioning a fusion power station and found it comparable to fission or nuclear energy.
The challenge of nuclear fusion is to heat stripped-down heavy hydrogen atoms to 100 million Celsius so that they fuse into helium, while finding a way to tap the released energy and at the same time keep the reaction going.
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, now being built in the South of France, might in a decade show that it could happen. Assuming it works, the process should be affordable. There would be no high-level radioactive waste, no problems with finding fuel and no by-product that could be turned into nuclear weaponry.
“Obviously we have had to make assumptions, but what we can say is that our predictions suggest fusion won’t be vastly more expensive than fission,” said Damian Hampshire, of the Center for Materials Physics at Durham University, UK.
“Calculating the cost of a fusion reactor is complex, given the variations in the cost of the raw materials and exchange rates. However, this work is a big step in the right direction,” adds Hampshire.
Biofuel is currently based mostly on the conversion of agricultural crops—sugar cane or corn—to feedstock for ethanol, which can be converted into gasoline or other fuels. But, in a hungry world, this is not an ideal solution.
So researchers have been looking at the microbial plant life in waste water and ponds as a possible answer, with promising experimental results on the small scale.
But now an Israeli company called Univerve has pioneered a cultivation system that gets ever more sunlight to speed up photosynthesis and get the algae working ever harder.
They report in the Technology journal that they bubbled air through a suspended, modular triangular structure with transparent walls so the algae get their solar energy from all sides and their oxygen at all times.
They promise green reactors up to 100 meters, holding 100 cubic meters of “production medium” or algae. There is a bonus: algae make omega-3 oils, so it could also serve the food industry and deliver cattle feed, as well as feedstock for the biofuel business.
In Montreal, Canada, researchers report in the same journal that they can tap into the photosynthesis in the tank full of algae and directly retrieve clean energy in the form of electricity.
The process involves tapping into the electron transfer chains in the plant life that turn sunlight into carbon-based tissue. In essence, the tank of cyanobacteria serves as the anode in a biological battery.
Having demonstrated the principle, the next step is to work out how to get commercially-useful power from what becomes, quite literally, the power plant.
In the U.S., civilian and military scientists have been looking again at an alloy of iron doped with gallium that has been around for decades, but which has just shown that it can produce electricity.
It has been named Galfenol and is described in the Journal of Applied Physics as magnetoelastic. Squeeze or deform it and its magnetisation changes. Stick it in a magnetic field and it changes shape.
The scientists found that when boxed in a clamp so that it could not deform, wrapped with copper wire and subjected to a powerful impact, Galfenol generated as much as 80 megawatts of instantaneous power per cubic meter. That is, it converted mechanical energy into electromagnetic discharge.
Right now, like the other advances, it remains a discovery awaiting an application. But energy researchers are certainly applying great ingenuity to the search for clean energy sources.
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Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.
Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.
Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.
SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0
"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.
It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.
Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.
In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.
The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).
"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.
The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.
"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.
Ivory Coast's rainforests have been decimated by cocoa production and what is left is put in peril by a new law that will remove legal protections for thousands of square miles of forests, according to The Guardian.
By Karin Kirk
Greenland had quite the summer. It rose from peaceful obscurity to global headliner as ice melted so swiftly and massively that many were left grasping for adjectives. Then, Greenland's profile was further boosted, albeit not to its delight, when President Trump expressed interest in buying it, only to be summarily dismissed by the Danish prime minister.
During that time I happened to be in East Greenland, both as an observer of the stark effects of climate change and as a witness to local dialogue about presidential real estate aspirations, polar bear migrations and Greenland's sudden emergence as a trending topic.
Heavy metals that may damage a developing brain are present in 95 percent of baby foods on the market. Cirou Frederic / PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections / Getty Images
Heavy metals that may damage a developing brain are present in 95 percent of baby foods on the market, according to new research from the advocacy organization Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), which bills itself as an alliance of scientists, nonprofit organizations and donors trying to reduce exposures to neurotoxic chemicals during the first three years of development.
By Kerstin Palme
Creepy-crawlies are among the oldest life forms on this planet. Before dinosaurs ever walked the earth, insects were certainly already there. Some estimates date their origins to 400 million years ago. They're also extremely successful. Of the 7 to 8 million species documented on Earth, around three quarters are likely bugs.
But several insect species could disappear for good in the next few decades and that would have serious consequences for humans.
Volvo introduced its first-ever all-electric vehicle this week, kicking off an ambitious plan to slash emissions and phase out solely gas-powered vehicles starting this year.
The report, released Wednesday, found that almost every European who lives in a city is exposed to unhealthy air, Reuters reported.